Fooling Ourselves and Paying a High Price

While the saga around the Penn State sexual abuse scandal will, and should, continue as people come to terms with the horrifying series of events that transpired, I find myself looking for any good that can come from this disturbing series of (in)actions of those in positions of authority. What happened in Happy Valley is unfortunately a microcosm of the great myth we continue to live in our country—that is, that people in positions of power will do the “right” thing even if “we the people” won’t do the same. For far too long, the American public has wanted to believe that the choices they make in their daily lives have no impact on how our leaders conduct themselves, let alone on the quality of society in which we live.

This case is a classic example of how one person, low on the hierarchical totem pole, failed to take the right action and immediately contact authorities. The fact that his “superiors” were notified and they to seemed content to bypass informing authorities, instead passing the proverbial buck up the chain of command, is repugnant. Yet, somehow these men’s daily glances in the mirror seemed not to reflect cowardice and self-serving behavior rather a distorted view that they had fulfilled their obligation to self, employer, football program and the children participating with the accused Foundation’s programs by informing those in charge and following their lead into a cloud of silence.

The problem with the head-in-the-sand strategy is that it never works in keeping the issue from surfacing; it just delays, and in many cases, exacerbates the consequences. How long did these guys think they would be able to keep this hidden? How many young men have been recruited to play for a school under the false pretense of participating in an honorable and storied program? How much money has been raised from people thinking they were participating in the same? And how many other victims fell prey to these activities because not one person had the strength to stop it? If you aren’t enraged—you should be.

A Familiar Story

And yet, doesn’t this go on everyday? How many people on Wall Street knew they were playing with fire? How many loan officers gave mortgages knowing full well that the families would never be able to pay them back? How many government regulators knew Madoff’s operations were suspect? The list goes on and on…and why don’t more people stand up to this behavior? While the answer is multi-fold, let us consider our contemporary standards on leadership from people not in traditional positions of power:

  • If you tell us what we don’t want to hear you are at best ignored and at worst vilified.
  • Asking us to reflect on our competing beliefs, e.g. that I want access to cheap, easy loans for a big house that I can’t afford and I want a healthy, vibrant economy, makes us uncomfortable and therefore unworthy of our attention.
  • If you are not in charge, you don’t know what you are doing and should keep your mouth shut and follow orders.
  • While not an excuse, these attitudes lead people to feel unempowered and that their opinions, input and insights are not appreciated or needed.

Want Change? Be Engaged.

The truth is that if we are going to improve our economy, government, education and, all too necessary, our social fabric, EVERYONE needs to be a fully engaged participant. This doesn’t mean that we should start policing everyone else’s behavior, rather that each person should give the best of their talents and skills and recognize the importance and interconnectedness of each person’s actions on others. So by allowing bad behavior to continue, each person participates in the hurt it causes everyone.

If you don’t believe that’s true just watch how the Penn State football program and indeed the entire University will be impacted for years to come. Not only have they lost a school icon who will remain forever marred by his behavior off the field, I am certain recruiting, admissions and fundraising will all suffer as a result of this corrosive legacy.

No one ever suggested that leadership is easy or that there won’t be moments when one’s strength will be put to the test. Although if more people understood the power in taking the right action in the moment we would see remarkable changes in the quality of all our lives. These changes will not occur in the sensational way of making a national scandal go away, rather in the peaceful success of never having to have lived through it to begin with. So if any good can come of this ever-widening tragedy, perhaps it is that each one of us will take a good look in the mirror and endeavor to make the leadership choice for the benefit of all.

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Scott Span


Interesting points. Good article. I’ve been looking at the Penn State tragedy form an organization change perspective, and currently drafting an article. Each time I add a point, I hear more news that makes me go back and edit…ever evolving story. I agree with your points, everyone needs to be an engaged participant for change, however for them to be engaged they must have trust and safety. All to often institutions and leaders do not provide a safe space for people, and thus not only does trust not exist but because of the lack of trust people tend not to speak up and share ideas and issues, yet alone engage in positive change. In organizational systems like Penn State (academia in general) true culture change must occur for positive changes to happen. Part of that culture change must be creating a safe space for people to speak up, and transparent and authentic communication from leadership and in all directions…among other things, this will help increase trust and engage people in positive change.

Kathleen Schafer

Scott–please keep me posted on the progress of your article. I agree that organizations where trust is valued and practiced and people feel safe in speaking up are ideal. The challenge is how do we get there from here? Without leaders who are willing to step forward when it does not exist, the option to create it dies. Just as with Penn State, the willingness to avoid speaking up caused far greater personal AND organizational harm than if one brave soul had the courage to stop it before . . . just as Margaret Mead says, “Never doubt the ability of a small group of people to change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Leaders create change that benefits all . . .