Thought Leadership

Penn State: “A massive collapse in leadership”

But more bureaucracy won’t change the culture

August 15, 2012

anguishI have scanned the Freeh Report, but am not surprised that Freeh states the PSU culture has to change. So what is Freeh suggesting the PSU culture change to? Short answer, more bureaucracy, more expenditure of time and money, and less education.

All of the symptoms that led to Jerry Sandusky’s criminal acts were readily apparent. It is always interesting to read about so-called unethical acts in organizations and hear witnesses’ state after-the-fact shock, dismay, disbelief, etc.

The problem at Penn State is simple…there was a massive collapse of leadership. Penn State football is a huge cash cow for the university, both from the games played to the alumni endowments bestowed on the university. The last thing leadership wanted to do is interfere with was the perpetual flow of MONEY!

My September 2012 ISHN column delves into Marianne Jennings’ seven signs of ethical collapse.  Let’s see if they apply to Penn State.

Sign # 1 – Pressure to maintain those numbers. In Penn State’s case, this is all about winning football games and bringing in the money.

Sign # 2 – Fear and Silence. The Freeh report is replete with fear and silence at all levels of the organization.

Sign # 3 – Young ‘Uns and a Bigger-than-Life CEO. With all due respect, Joe Paterno was considered far more than a “Bigger-than-Life CEO” by any measure you want to use. As far as the young ‘uns are concerned, none of his staff would ever question his decisions.

Sign # 4 – Weak Board. Freeh points out the weakness of the board of trustees at Penn State. Interesting name for a board in this case.

Sign # 5 – Conflicts. To say there wasn’t any conflict in the Penn State football program and in the university regarding this situation would be an understatement.

Sign # 6 – Innovation Like No Other. Certainly, no one would disagree that Penn State has held itself out as premier university with an unbelievable football team and coach, which fostered tremendous pride, perks, and hubris. Freeh makes a number of recommendations regarding compliance with the Clery Act of 1990 also known as the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act. The law was named for Jeanne Clery, a19-year-old Lehigh University (another Pennsylvania university) freshman who was raped and murdered in her campus residence hall in 1986. As Jennings points out, “Fraud is hardly fraud if you have convinced yourself that the rules don’t apply to you.”; Leaders who find themselves in this type of circumstance often create very innovative rationalizations to convince themselves to not take action by ignoring all the signs and hoping it will just go away. Remember, Hope is NOT a Strategy.

Sign # 7 – Goodness in Some Areas Atones for Evil in Others. Sandusky’s and the university’s outreach to young children screams out loud this warning sign of ethical collapse.

The Special Investigative Counsel developed 120 recommendations. A brief reading of these recommendations reveals the imposition of a significant amount of bureaucracy on the Penn State system with the formation of numerous committees, structures, reporting requirements, monitoring, training, etc. One has to ask, if, hypothetically, everything Freeh recommended were in place would that have prevented Sandusky from molesting children? I would suggest if Freeh’s recommendations were in place, Sandusky would merely have gone deeper underground and not been so cavalier about his actions taking showers with children in the men’s locker room where he could and was seen.

There is no question that what Sandusky did to his victims was outrageous, but we should not fall prey to the naïve belief that more bureaucracy is going to change a culture much less an individual’s behavior.

To a great extent implementing Mr. Freeh’s recommendations will make a lot of people feel like they are doing something that possibly will allow Penn State to regain its credibility, but will it prevent a similar incident from occurring again. I seriously doubt it.



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