12 Important Lessons from the Penn State and Syracuse fiascos

Joe Paterno with Jerry Sandusky

With the passing of Joe Paterno, there is a lot of debate about his legacy and how he will be remembered?  It is a shame that a historic coach with over 400 victories even has doubts that his main accomplishments were in mentoring athletes, helping them graduate and teaching them to become better people.  Yet, due to a variety of factors (some of his own doing and some outside of his control), Paterno’s reputation will bear a permanent tarnish.  Still, I believe that his accomplishments should not be completely nullified by his mistakes.  Our legacies are a complex interaction of the positive and negative things which have occurred during our life.  I hope that after reading these lessons you can help prevent this type of situation in your life/organization.

  • Understand the risks of actions of those underneath you

Among the most underanalyzed areas in all of business are the risks and liabilities created by people who are below the upper management.  Many of these risks are not adequately explained to the employees and often the employees do not receive sufficient training to allow them to truly understand the consequences of their actions (or inactions).  If your organization does not implement a system to train and educate your employees to watch for things beyond the immediate scope of their employment you will suffer severe consequences.  Employees should be taught to question and critique things that are going on because they are your eyes and ears. 

  • Deal with initial reports

Many times initial reports are vague and sketchy.  Victims or the individuals reporting the inappropriate activity are fearful, either for their personal safety or for their jobs.  In today’s economy, it is easier to ignore problems that you see than to jeopardize your own well-being.  It is difficult, but your organization needs to implement rewards and confidentiality elements to encourage and protect those that are trying to help you.

  • Don’t ignore warning signs

Sometimes things just don’t make sense. Any one incident with one employee can mean nothing (i.e. working late, no vacations, always around).  But often, you actually have multiple people in an organization who are becoming suspicious of the same situation.  However, taken alone, their observations mean nothing.   Without a reasonable reporting system to encourage employees to provide you with this information, you ONLY have a random series of events in the eyes of the observers, instead of the clear pattern which exists when viewed within the sequence of the behaviors.  If something doesn’t add up, move on to a Step 4 without hesitation.

  • Conduct thorough investigations

When the initial reports are vague and you have not received corroboration from other witnesses, it can be easy to ignore the allegations.  Often they are written off as a misunderstanding” or something taken out of context.  Do not be so quick to dismiss the claims.  Conduct a proper investigation using resources appropriate to the scale of the issues.  If police need to be involved, this is the appropriate time to do so.  The investigations that are hastily dismissed because people want to get on with their real” jobs are the ones that leave many stones unturned, many witnesses unquestioned and many issues waiting to cause problems at a later date.

  • Cut the ties early

If there appear to be problems, severing the ties early can avert significant problems at a later date.  If you look at the Sandusky situation, PSU knew enough to remove him as a coach in 1999. Yet Sandusky was still allowed to remain connected to the program and use the facilities for a long period after that.  PSU’s athletic department continued to provide him access to the student-athletes, the facilities and many other perks of being around the program.  Reports surfaced this week that he was in the President of the University’s box at a football game just weeks before his arrest.  If they found out enough to remove him in 1999, the other elements should have been cut off as well.

  • Be accountable in your role

This was a major failing at PSU and a terrific contrast with Syracuse.  At PSU the information and the details lay dormant for over a decade, allowing countless other alleged victims to suffer.  Nobody in PSU stepped up to make sure that the incidents got reported to the police and that a proper investigation was conducted.  The lack of accountability permeated every level of the university, something that ultimately resulted in the layers of problems.  At Syracuse, Chancellor Cantor stepped up quickly and acted decisively.  Perhaps aided by the immediacy of the PSU issues, Syracuse’s swift actions demonstrated its desire to be accountable as an institution, rather than working to protect an individual accused of these crimes (we will examine the double edge sword nature of this a bit later).

  • Make those under you accountable in their roles

You can only make other accountable to you if you are accountable to them.  The clichÚ of respect being earned is one that fits aptly here.  There seemed to be a circular passing of the buck of the responsibility for dealing with the situation.  None of the people felt they had the obligation or the power to take the proper actions.  Whether this was all because of their fear of Joe Paterno or not, someone at the institutional level needed to be asking more questions about what was going on.

  • Don’t try to cover up

Cover ups can create more damage than the crime.  We have seen that since Watergate.  If there was not an institutional cover-up going on at PSU it is very difficult to imagine that ALL of the elite leaders of the institution, acting independently, would have agreed to ignore the apparently overwhelming evidence.  In today’s media and technology driven world, things will not stay hidden for very long.  And in fact, the more you deny and try to hide from the truth, the more people will dig and dig until they find out the reality.  If you think that all witnesses and all evidence will remain out of sight you are kidding yourself.  And if you think your identity and details are secure and safe, go watch the TV show Person of Interest” on CBS.  While possibly exaggerated the point should be clear.  NOTHING you do or say is safe.  You have to assume every call is recorded, every email is read and every action you take is videotaped.  And then govern yourself accordingly.

  • Do not attack the victims of overly” defend the accused

Nothing enrages the public more than attacking the victim.  Even if it has to be done in the context of an actual criminal trial (a tactic far too detailed and complex to deal with in this space), it should not be done in the media.   It alienates your supporters and makes your organization appear to be insensitive to the alleged victim.  If the victim is lying, you will have plenty of time to make your statements and issue your press releases.  But if you come out like Jim Boeheim attacking the accuser and defending Bernie Fine you will have trouble if the facts do not support you.  The biggest problem is that the people closest to the situation are often far too connected and involved to see the defects.  Remember that clichÚ about right under your nose.”   The best statement is one indicating that you are going to let the investigation play out, cooperate with the authorities and decide from there.

  • PR from inaction typically worse than PR from overreaction

When a story breaks, the public wants to see some action.  Quick statements, calls for investigations, interim suspensions pending investigations and other proactive stances will generate a lot of goodwill on your side.  As we mentioned before, they could have a double edged sword because suspending or terminating someone before a full investigation could lead to institutional liability. Typically though, the lack of action will hurt the institution far more than overreacting since the overreaction can usually be corrected by announcing positive findings in an investigation or issuing a press release exonerating the accused. 

  • Take responsibility

Everybody makes mistakes. EVERYBODY.  Nobody who is in a position of leadership has a perfect record.  They have regrets, decisions that could be second guessed, behaviors that they would not want to be made public and issues in their personal life they would not want exposed.  Step up and own the mistake.   Acknowledge the fault.  Accept the responsibility.  Indicate how you have learned from the mistake or what steps you have taken to ensure that it will not happen again. These actions not only reinforce your acceptance of the responsibility, they make you publicly accountable to ensure that it does not occur again.

  • Apologize

We live in a VERY forgiving society.  Things will be on the news for a relatively short cycle.  Most of us in our lives do not receive the scrutiny of Joe Paterno, Jim Tressel, Bill Clinton or other high profile sports, entertainment or political figures.  If you apologize for your actions in a sincere fashion, you will earn a lot of respect DESPITE the severity of the mistake.  Had Bill Clinton apologized to the American people for his encounter” with Monica Lewinsky, he would have endured a week or two of ridicule rather than the extended ordeal he went through. Once you apologize, show your contrition and then move on.  Something else will come in the news cycle that will take you off the front page.  Your actions will never go away and you will need to live with yourself and live with the prospect of facing your victims or those you have wronged, but after you have apologized all you can do is move forward and try to regain the respect you have lost.

As Joe Paterno was laid to rest yesterday and has his public memorial today, the question we ask is What do you feel was Joe Paterno’s greatest accomplishment?”  In a perverse way, I feel that this whole scandal may ultimately result in the greatest positive impact on the most people.  It took a person of Paterno’s stature to shed the light on this issue, and he helped” it receive even more attention than other high profile occurrences within the church.  It is only when a man (or woman) of great stature suffers through an incredibly difficult time that the whole world notices.  Had Paterno reported and acted promptly on the Sandusky case in 1998, we would not be having this conversation.  His failure” may end up being the action which creates the greatest social change.  So let us know how you remember Paterno and what you feel his legacy should be.

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