by Steve Adubato, PhD
I am not looking to pile on Penn State, but it continues to boggle my mind how so many top leaders could have failed in their responsibility to step up and deal directly and responsibly with the horrific and egregious crimes that occurred at the hands of Jerry Sandusky while on their watch.
Once Sandusky sexually violated his first innocent victim in the Penn State football complex in 1998, the University and the football program were bound to take a hit. That’s the way it is with a scandal, particularly one this unthinkable. In any corporation or organization, there will be a price to pay and you are going to be embarrassed. Your brand will be bruised. However, it is how leaders handle the situation that dictates just how big that hit is and exactly how deep the bruise.
In the case of Penn State’s leaders, their continual efforts to cover up for Sandusky by refusing to go to law enforcement officials allowed a dangerous pedophile free access to children on their turf. This action only assured that such a scandal would ultimately end up as a worst case scenario. I’m not talking about Joe Paterno’s statue being taken down outside the football stadium. Rather, the announcement made by NCAA President Mark Emmert this week of the unprecedented sanctions and penalties against Penn State. Those sanctions included a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban and an annual reduction of ten scholarships over a four-year period. In addition, all of Penn State’s wins from 1998 to 2011 have been vacated.
Simply put, Penn State’s football program has been decimated. The University’s reputation and brand has been left in tatters. How many parents around the country with juniors and seniors in high school are encouraging their kids to go to Penn State? Conversely, how many high school kids, be they athletes or not, are looking to wear a Nittany Lions sweatshirt over the next four years?
There are so many lessons to be taken from the Penn State fiasco, and clearly one of the biggest involves our need to protect innocent children from dangerous predators like Jerry Sandusky. But the other lessons involve the need for ethical, strong and proactive leadership when things go wrong in an organization. Lessons that cry out for communication that is clear and unambiguous; the need to acknowledge ones own “bad news” instead of waiting for an outside entity to do so, not only for the horrific incidents that occurred, but for your efforts to try to keep those crimes from seeing the light of day.
Further, there are lessons here that involve the importance of leaders keeping their priorities in check when it comes to what ultimately matters to an organization’s brand. The irony is that the highest levels of leadership at Penn State believed that by not reporting Sandusky’s sexual crimes, they were protecting Penn State’s reputation as a University and a football power house. Their fear was that by letting the world know what had happened, their reputation and image would be hurt. Think about that. What ultimately happened was that every day, week, month and year that went by, with Penn State engaging in this secretive and corrupt crisis communication “strategy”, they were ensuring that Penn State’s reputation would be permanently tarnished and potentially destroyed. Bad things happen—sometimes even crimes occur—on the watch of leaders who are good and decent people. But when they do, certain actions must take place. If not, a bad situation will only get a lot worse.