While much of the nation is horrified by the recent scandals at Penn State University, they are not surprising in certain ways. Many of the characteristics that the university exhibited in the years leading up to these disclosures are not unique. We have seen them in other embarrassed institutions, such as the Catholic Church, the military in the U.S. and around the world, many large urban police departments, and others. Do you recognize yourself, your company or your organization in the following practices? If not, you may be so far out of touch with reality that you are setting yourself up for a fall from grace similar to Penn State’s.
MISTAKING YOUR EXCELLENCE IN ONE SUBJECT AREA AS OMNIPOTENCE. Robert A. Mundell, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Economics, appeared on Late Night with David Letterman one night to read “Top Ten Ways My Life Has Changed Since Winning The Nobel Prize.” The first change (number 10) he cited was that he “can end almost any argument by asking, ‘And did you ever win a Nobel Prize?'” It’s funny, but also true. Once you are applauded as a subject expert, it is easy to think all your opinions and actions are beyond reproach. But really, does being rich automatically make you an expert in all things economic? (Similar to Mundell, I have heard titans of industry give this retort to challenging questions: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”) Similarly, Penn State’s success on the gridiron may have led the school’s officials to believe that either they were not accountable for their actions or that they could do no wrong
A company that is highly successful making widgets may still have a poor accounting system, leaving their very existence in jeopardy. Similarly, making that one widget well does not mean that the manufacturer is guaranteed success in other areas. Witness the companies that ventured outside their core competencies and failed notably. There is a reason that the King James Bible states that “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Just because you’re good, stay humble and put a check on yourself.
YOU ARE ORGANIZED TO SHIELD YOUR LEADERS FROM UNPLEASANT TRUTHS. Evidence of this shortcoming can be found in the way that Penn State’s top officials did not know of the true nature of the violations against children on the campus. (By the time that word-of-mouth about an assault in the locker room meandered to the president’s office through “Whisper Down the Lane,” it had devolved from a “rape” to “horseplay.”) Do your top leaders understand how, for example, poor expense reporting may affect the bottom line? If not, it might be good to open up at least a bit.
YOU HAVE NO OUTSIDE INFLUENCES OR OVERSIGHT. It appears that Penn State officials, including school president Graham Spanier, did not venture outside the university when they uncovered wrongdoing. Rather than go to the police, they tried investigated the perpetrator themselves. And as we have been saying since Watergate, the cover-up was worse than the crime. How do you govern? Do you or your organization ever ask for outside opinions, or have you become your own frame of reference? Going further, is your company hiring from outside its inner circle? There are reasons we have Affirmative Action in this country, and one is to promote diversity of thought rather than monolithic mindsets.
Mark Wilson and Mark Doorley of Villanova University’s ethics program write in an editorial, “As we try to understand what happened and what failed to happen at Penn State, we must ask broader questions about all our institutions. Do they cultivate a capacity to act on behalf of others, no matter what their role or status? Or do they reward inaction and loyalty to procedure, and so unwittingly lay the groundwork for complacency and complicity with evil?” Indeed, such introspective questions will help keep us and our organizations honest, in more ways than one.