Lessons of Leadership – A Note to Michigan State University: Remember Penn State

In January, 2012, I wrote the following as part of a larger piece on the painful lessons  of leadership.

“It is a great and painful lesson.  When we put on the mantle of leadership we are called upon to do the right thing…all of the time.   Regardless of our track record of success, a moment of poor judgment, a failure to step up the way we need to, that moment(s) can cost us everything.  Most of the time, our lack of judgment, ignorance, inability to deal in a moment, are just moments.  Moments that may carry some reprimand, show up in a performance review under “opportunity for improvement”, cost us some stature, and maybe cost us some money.  Sometimes those moments have such harsh consequences they can seem unfair.  Ask the victims of the sexual abuse.  Ask the Paterno family.  Ask other leadership at Penn State.  These moments tore down lives and tore down communities.  In the end, it cost a great man his life.”

In the wake of the unfolding events at MSU and beyond, I write again about the failure of leadership, and add some additional insights gained in the last six years.  I hope it stimulates your own thoughts.

I hope your January was a good start to the year.  Many thanks for all your support and feedback.

Do your best work and be well.


A Failure of Leadership; a Failure of Values; Both?

Grabbed by darknessSix years ago, I was appalled and sickened by the unfolding events at Penn State University and Jerry Sandusky.  I was also saddened by the knowledge that one of the men that I most admired, Joe Paterno, took no action when he had the chance to.  I published a piece on it January 24, 2012.

Six years later I find myself in a similar place with the events of the past several months with Dr. Larry Nasser, and what is unfolding with Michigan State University.

I am a person that believes the good in people, even when I know, for myself and others, that our ‘darkness’ coexists with our ‘light.’  I am called to follow the light, while understanding the catastrophic nature of the dark – the continuing unfolding of countless sexual harassment claims across multiple industries; human trafficking of children; the horror that is Dr. Nasser’s saga; the stories about the failure to lead and to act on what we know is morally right.

I wrote six years ago, “When we put on the mantle of leadership we are called upon to do the right thing…all of the time.” The right thing all the time.  Our margin of error is often slim.  Many times I believe it was the grace of God that cut off certain of my ‘moments’ from progressing to a point of costing me more than my embarrassment.  I believe these key ‘decision moments’ in our lives are influenced by ‘noise’ around us.

Over the past 30 years most organizations have spent countless hours, and thousands, if not millions, of dollars crafting their messages of what they stood for; mission and vision statements as well as corporate values.  They are proud of their work, and publish their work in numerous publications, as well as on the walls of their offices.  Michigan State is no exception.  I would encourage you to go online and read their work.  It is well written and inspiring.  Quality, Inclusion, and Connectivity are their values.  Their commitment: “Fostering a culture of safety and respect.”

What we recognize with organizations, since they are nothing more than a conglomeration of people, is that our ‘stated’ intention for how we want to be and act is often at odds with what we really do during those ‘decision moments.’  Don Miguel Ruiz wrote a small, but powerful book, The Four Agreements.  The first ‘agreement,’ with yourself, is “be impeccable with your word.”

He explains, “Why your word?  Your word is the power you have to create.  Your word is the gift that comes directly from God…Through the word you express your creative power.  It is through the word that you manifest everything.  Regardless of what language you speak, your intent (my emphasis) manifests through the word.”

How many people do you know whose actions always match their word(s)?  Not many.  That is the challenge, and it is also the opportunity to transform ourselves and how we live.  Imagine a world where everyone’s word was ‘impeccable.’  Perhaps, because that is not our experience with others, we have lowered our standard for what we expect from others.

One of the things that our society values is athletics.  Nowhere is it more evident than at colleges.  For many colleges and universities, athletics (football and basketball) is the large economic engine by which many institutions enhance their ability to carry out their mission and vision.  When we ‘look under the hood,’ however, it is likely one of the reasons that our values get ‘compromised’ and our ‘word’ is no longer impeccable.

It starts with the athletes themselves.  From the time they are very young, they receive rewards and accolades for their performance.  The better athletes see the accolades come from more than just family and friends.  Athletics is a vehicle to help us belong.  (This is true for both boys and girls, men and women, but my illustrations are about men, because they represent the larger economic engine in college.)  It is a good thing.  As we go into middle school, the best athletes are offered a chance to play with other ‘elite’ athletes.  The rewards and special treatment grows (i.e. AAU teams, travel teams).  They are beginning to believe the ‘word’ of others about their ‘specialness.’  By this time we may also hold them a little less accountable for their less productive behavior.

In high school, the best of these athletes experience continued ‘special treatment’ for their athletic prowess.  They have heard the ‘word’ of how great they are for many years.  Many have heard the ‘word’ of others about how great they are, and they come to believe how great they are.  It is not a very long walk from “I’m special” to “I’m entitled.”  If that ‘entitlement’ belief is allowed to grow, and accountability for their behavior is not instilled, then some will develop that “I’m better than you” belief that crawls up alongside “I’m special.”  It is easy to see how 17, 18, 19, 20-year old’s, with this belief system, begin to treat others, or some others, with less respect.  In some instances that less respect includes taking what they want.  That ‘taking,’ along with less respect, can collide in a very graphic and ugly way with women.  While some of the abuse of women we see can be attributed to the mental illness of the man, I believe the overwhelming number can be attributed to what they were taught to value, and what they were held accountable for. Their parents, teachers, coaches, the community, and others were the teachers.  We ‘colluded’ to not hold them accountable for what is morally right because they were ‘special.’

With this dynamic in place (a college economic engine, needing fed by skilled athletes), it is easy to see how the leaders can be put in a very ‘difficult place’ in dealing with the emerging behavior of some of their best athletes (this can also be true in high school, just not as often).  Part of our problem as leaders is that we believe the beautiful ‘word’ that is published about our values and our commitment(s).  We believe the word about how wonderful we, are and how great our athletic program is.  We believe that is who we are.

When faced, particularly in a very public way, with facts that say, “You are not this, you are this,” which is something dark and terrible – well, all you have to do is watch a couple of Tom Izzo’s news conferences the end of last month to know how embarrassingly uncomfortable he is.  Mr. Izzo has recently said that the time is coming when he will be able to answer many of the questions he is being asked.  Maybe he will be exonerated.  Maybe it will look like Penn State.

This ‘interim’ period is painful.  My concern is that the failure to uphold what we value has led to a failure of leadership, and the interim time is about “how do we craft the message.”  My encouragement, is to ‘craft’ this message – “We want to admit to our ‘darkness;’ the failure of many to live up to our very public commitment to safety and respect.  We were very wrong.”

We understand darkness.  We can forgive the acts of darkness.  What we can’t forgive is trying to say it is something that it is not; to continue to utter the words of the university’s commitment, as if it makes it true.”  Is it easy?  No.  There is so much we have built, there is so much to protect.  We have to admit that the ‘word’ about who we are was not true in this circumstance, and it hasn’t been true in relation to the abuse for a very long time.

The MSU President and Athletic Director were expendable.  They don’t ‘touch’ the athletes in a direct way.  Now the hard part. If MSU is to restore the impeccability of its word, they have a very tough call to make about the future of Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo.

How important is it to MSU to restore the impeccability of its word?  I guess we will find out.  Unfortunately, the longer leaders hold on to the ‘imagine’ of their ‘beauty,’ the longer this will take, the harder it will be to restore, and the pain of these moments will linger a long, long time.  Given the travesty of the abuse of the women perhaps it needs to be a long and painful process.  Penn State can testify to the pain and the time.

How many other campuses are just like Penn State and MSU?  This is not isolated behavior.  A by-product of our society is that there will always be people who will receive ‘special treatment.’  It is part of the ‘reward’ system.  We need to understand that the risk of this ‘special treatment’ carries with it the potential for less accountability for what is morally right.  As leaders, we are called to do what is morally right.

“The most important agreements are the ones you made with yourself.  In these agreements you tell yourself who you are, what you feel, what you believe, and how to behave.”  – Ruiz

To a better you…




Of Interest:  Back in 2011 this commentary piece was written.  We now know the rest of the story.  We can only hope, as leaders, that stories and history teach us something.