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On Thursday, former FBI director Louis Freeh released a 267-page report on his investigation into Penn State’s child abuse case. Last month, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys over the course of 15 years, and Freeh’s report investigated the role of other Penn State officials in the case.

The report condemns high-ranking Penn State authorities, including the late Joe Paterno, legendary head football coach, for failing in their responsibilities to act to protect Sandusky’s victims.

From the report’s executive summary:

The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims…

Four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University – President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President- Finance and Business Gary C. Schulz, Athletic Directory Timothy M. Curley and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno – failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade…

Taking into account the available witness statements and evidence, the Special Investigative Counsel finds that it is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the University – Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley – repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the University’s Board of Trustees, the Penn State community, and the public at large.

The Penn State scandal is an upsetting example of how leaders can make serious mistakes that hurt not only their organization but, much more importantly, the lives of other people. This case is a cautionary tale that provides leadership lessons and professional ethics takeaways for leaders in any field.

What Leaders Can Learn From the Penn State Case

1. If you see wrongdoing, report it.

Don’t turn a blind eye to something you know is wrong — whether that’s a colleague exaggerating expense reports or an employee being sexually harassed by a manager. If you don’t report it, you are part of the problem.

2. Listen to the warnings.

Make it clear to your employees that they can and should tell you if they notice any criminal activities or violations of professional ethics within your organization. Let them know that you take these situations seriously and will investigate any problem reported.

3. Act immediately to address the problem.

Look into any reported problems, and inform the appropriate authorities if necessary. If you report something illegal, dangerous or unethical and nothing happens, make noise until something does. Passing the buck, as in the Penn State case, and assuming the problem is taken care of, is not acceptable.

4. Do the right thing.

Don’t conceal wrongdoing to protect your organization’s reputation. Do what you know is right.

Edward Queen, Director for the D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership at Emory University’s Center for Ethics summed it up well in a CNN piece:

We protect our reputations by doing the right thing, not by hiding our failings. Indeed, even amid discovery of error and wrongdoing, reputations are enhanced by acknowledging, dealing with them immediately and directly, and working to minimize their recurrence.

What leadership lessons do you think organizations can take away from the Penn State case? Add your comments.

Make professional ethics a priority.


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