When a Moral Crisis is a Leadership Crisis

The crisis at Penn State involving the sexual predation of young boys by a football coach brings a sad end to the career of Joe Paterno. While there is really nothing to say in defense of the assistant coach who is alleged to have commit these acts of perversion. I believe we can describe them this way.  As bad as it is, the greater crisis is one of leadership.

As I read and watched the coverage of this tragic situation, I can understand how all of this came to pass. I believe that it is perfectly explanable, though not excuseable.

While I know most people are reviled by the thought of a middle age man having sex with a 10 year boy, most people don't know what to do about it when confronted with the situation. The graduate assistant's actions is what most people who have never had any training in sexual boundaries within organizations would do. Go to your boss.

Until I became a Boy Scout leader, I did not know that any accusation of sexual abuse between an adult and a minor is required by law to be immediately communicated to law enforcement.  Prior to going through Youth Protection Training with the Boy Scouts, my understanding was that this is a matter for social services, not the police.

Joe Paterno, the Athletic Director and President Gordon Spanier should have know this. Either they didn't or if they did, they ignored it.

Once they discovered what this former coach had done, they should have addressed it directly with the families involved, and restricted the coach from any contact with the university, its programs and personnel.  This would be the case even if the first step is to contact law enforcement.

They should have also disclosed to the public the situation, and demonstrated a no tolerance position regarding sexual abuse.  If they had taken these simple steps, Joe Paterno would be coaching his team this weekend.

The Real Leadership Problem

The problem though is that it seems that these Penn State officials were living in a bubble. Their perception of what they could manage was faulty. This is often the result of a leadership culture of insularity, born of arrogance and fear. Yes, both arrogance and fear. The arrogance that I can handle this, and the fear of being found wanting as a leader.

The Penn State Board of Trustees are the ultimate authority in this matter. Their governance of the university is insufficient. I believe that they have now discovered this. Their actions last night to fire Joe Paterno and president, Gordon Spanier were the right ones.  A review of the Board of Trustees actions over the past decade is also needed to determine how a situation like this could have gone unaddressed. 

Organizational Leaders are Moral Leaders

Here's the reality that we must all face. Being an able administrator does not mean you are a paragon of moral credibility.

Your character as a human being matters in the conduct of your service as a leader. If you think you can finesse the moral side of leadership, then you are mistaken.

Today, you should assume that nothing is hidden. Everything will be found out.That honesty and integrity are not marketing slogans, but personal performance strategies.

When confronted with a situation like this one at Penn State, you will be judged as much for the process you take to resolution as for the resolution itself. Therefore, it is best to develop processes of openness, integrity, fairness and action. If you are the Executive Director, Owner or CEO of an organization, then you need to begin right away to put into place procedures for managing this kind of situation. If you have them, review their appropriatness in light of this Penn State debacle.

It is also important that no one person be treated as more important than the integrity of the institution. After over 60 years of involvement in the world of Penn State, Joe Paterno is fired by a phone call, ending his tenure as the winningest college football coach. Not the way anyone thought his tenure would end like this.

It is a sad day in Happy Valley. They will recover. A price will be paid for the serious errors in judgment by the Penn State leadership. And we each have had the opportunity to learn that to separate ethical responsibility from leadership is a course that leads to destruction.

All in a handshake

Peter Mello posted this video yesterday of Mark Bowden talking about how to shake hands. I found this so compelling because he speaking about something so instinctive and invisible, yet reveals an insight that can affect every relationship we have in a moment of time. Watch the video.

Mark sees that at the heart of the handshake is the establishment of trust.

Trust is such a key element in success and leadership today.

Trust is an ethical term. The handshake is a form of social etiquette.

I've heard it said that etiquette is ethics in action.

When people come to trust us, we also gain their confidence in us. As a result, our own self-confidence should grow.

Barriers that exist between people can be lowered by simply how we greet them with a handshake. I know there is more to it than that, but it begins there.

Click on the video again and go to YouTube where you can find other videos of Mark talking about how our body language affects relations with people.

Aristotelian motivation

Dan Pink, in his TED talk (Watch here or here), presents a perspective of human motivation that is worth reflecting on. In his presentation he identifies three aspects of human motivation that he wants us to consider: Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose.

All this seemed strangely familiar, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Dan was presenting a very Aristotlelian perspective of human motivation. Instead of giving you a dozen fragments from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, I thought I reproduce a couple pages from Jonathan Lear's Aristotle: the desire to understand .

There seems then to be philosophical as well as historical reason for going back to Aristotle's ethics. With decline in confidence that Kantian morality can give us any guidance as to how to act, there is reason to go back to an ethical system based firmly in the study of human motivation. The hope is that an ethical system grounded in human motivation will not only answer questions about how to act, but will also be justifiable by reference to life as it is lived in this world. Ethics, Aristotle believed, was grounded in the study of human desire. We have already seen that, for Aristotle, all human action is grounded in desire. It is of the greatest interest to see whether any study of human desire could have recognizably ethical conclusions about how humans should act.

The point of the Nicomachean Ethics is not to persuade us to be good or to show us how to behave well in the various circumstances in life: it is to give people who are already leading a happy, virtuous life insight into the nature of their own souls. The aim of Ethics is to offer its readers self-understanding, not persuasion or advice. Of course, as we have seen, Aristotle thinks that self-understanding will be of practical value: those who understand what human happiness is will, like the archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit their target.  However, this understanding can be of practical value only for those for whom it is self-understanding: namely, for those who are already living a virtuous life. There are two reasons for this.

First, ethics is not an area in which it is possible to spell out precise rules about how to act ... Ethics cannot properly be conceived as a moral computer which one feeds information about the current circumstances as input and which churns out instructions about how to behave as output. The way to find out what to do is to seek the judgment of a good man, for he will be a good judge of how to behave. The good man will be sensitive to what the circumstances require and will be motivated to act in the right way. But if ethics is not a set of rules, that one ingests in order to become a good person, then, one cannot become a good person by internalizing a set of rules, for there are no rules to internalize.

Second, human happiness is not something which can be adequately understood from an external perspective. Among the ends toward which human actions are directed, Aristotle distinguished between ends that are distinct from the actions which produce them and ends that are the activities themselves.  This is the distinction we have already seen between change (kinesis) and an activity (energeia). ... This distinction is central to Aristotle's ethics, for acting virtuously is not a means to a distinct end of living a happy life. Acting virtuously constitutes a happy life. This cannot be adequately understood by a non-virtuous person. From the perspective of a bad man, a virtuous act will appear onerous, painful or silly. From the perspective of the immature, the idea of a virtuous act may have some appeal, but his soul will not be sufficiently formed for this to be the strongest desire within him. He will feel the pull of contrary desires and he will not understand in any but the most superficial sense that acting virtuously is the way to be happy.

What Lear writes here distinguishes Aristotle from those contemporary ethical thinkers who want to make ethics either about our intentions, and not our actions, or who want to treat ethics as entirely from a utilitarian perspective of establishing rules of what is right and wrong.

The application to present day leaders and their organizations is that to follow Lear's description of Aristotle's ethics means that we don't live in a fantasy world of self-deception believing that all that matters is that I have good intentions towards people, or that I'm okay as long as I don't break the law.

Contained within the pages of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics is a perspective that provides an ancient, yet practical guide that touches on Dan Pink's framework of autonomy, mastery and purpose. I an eagerly looking forward to the publication of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

Quick Takes: We Need an Ethics Czar

Bruce Weinstein, writing in Business Week proposes to add an Ethics Czar.

...there is one kind of problem the Obama Administration has yet to tackle, even though it may be the most pervasive one of all. It is a distressing issue about which everyone complains but no one has been able to address effectively: The widespread failure of our leaders—and the rest of us—to take ethics seriously. ...

I therefore propose my top nominee for Ethics Czar: You.

Weinstein gives six ways that we can live ethically.








I think this is a pretty good list. His whole perspective certainly fits with my view that more than ever local rules. Read the whole article.

Saying Thanks Every Day - my inspiration for this ethic of giving


When the Johnny Bunko contest was announced last fall, my first reaction was Say Thanks Every Day. It was a recognition of the importance of what others do for us every day.  But what was it that opened my mind to think that this response was the right one? I've been thinking about this over the past few weeks.

I can now trace my inspiration for Saying Thanks Every Day to my experience with people who picked up and moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Some came for a few weeks, other many months, a couple families I met, two years, and one woman, has been there since the beginning of the recovery.

Their example is of giving and self-sacrifice, of the desire to help and make a difference. Frankly, I have been moved by seeing what has taken place down there. It is largely hidden from the public's view because it was never a wide-spread movement of giving. It was simply people taking initiative to give in tangible ways.

I am grateful for them, and give thanks every time I hear a Katrina report for those who went and contributed. 

Please don't think this is something in the past. It isn't. It is still going on today. People are still taking time off work, using their vacation time, and at their own expense to travel from across the country to go to New Orleans and the Mississppi Gulf Coast to continue to rebuild the physical structures of communities - homes.

There is an ethic of giving taking place there that has has begun to transform how people think about their relationships, their businesses and their communities.  For all the things I've written about here and in my newspaper column, Hostmanship is the one that keeps coming up. Read my review here to learn more.

I want you to understand that there is something happening, and this vote for Saying Thanks Every Day is just a small part of it. it is happening without a lot of fanfare, and if Saying Thanks Every Day wins, then it will have a bit more public notice.

So, if you have not voted, please do so through next Thursday, January 15. (Voting is closed.)

And it doesn't go without saying, Thanks very much.

The first great ethical shift of the 21st century

Here's a short interview with Seth Godin. Listen to the ideas behind what he says.


What he says reminds me of one the Johnny Bunko lessons - #3 It's not about you.

If you are listening carefully, what you are hearing is a seismic shift in ethics taking place, slowly, but most certainly.

From Gordon Gekko to Seth Godin, from "greed is good" to "helping people achieve their goals" the shift is happening.

This is the first ethical shift of the 21st century - from self-centeredness to self-givingness. It is the ethical principle that lies behind my Johnny Bunko 7th lesson - Say Thanks, Every Day

My friend Tom Morris in his book If Aristotle Ran General Motors writes about The Greatest Rule of All.

There is one rule recognized in some form or other within every major human culture I have been able to investigate. And increasingly, corporate leaders today are beginning to testify to its fundamental value in their business endeavors.  It's evident power intimates some of the potential usefulness of moral rules in general, despite any difficulties we might have in conceiving of ethics as involving nothing but rules.  This rule can be identified quite dramatically by the briefes of ancient anecdotes
History tells us that the great Jewish scholar Hillel (c.30B.C -A.D.10) was once asked what, at its essence, Judaism really is, and replied simply "Don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to you.  All the rest is commentary."  What a statement! ...

This ethical shift is not simply one of intention or words, but of actions.

People tend be skeptical of pronounements of high principled ethical conviction. "Trust us" is the last thing we want to hear. Yet, we desire trust in our relationships. How do we experience that trust? It comes back to what Seth speaks of, of functioning within a social environment to help others. This is what Tom writes about.  

If you pause and reflect on the great business failures of the past generation, you'll see at the heart of them is a greed and self-centeredness that violates the principle of the Golden Rule. From the ashes is coming a new ethical environment for business. It is building slowly,but building it is. And every dramatic failure casts a light upon the need for change in this way.

31 Questions: ethics

18. What does it mean for a leader to be an ethical person?

Let me state up front that ethics is not primarily about right and wrong. It is convenient to characterize it this way because it actually removes the obligation to be ethical. In other words, keep your nose clean and you are ethical. That is not how I understand ethics.

My friend Tom Morris, a philosopher, writes in his book, If Aristotle Ran General Motors ...

Ethics is not first and foremost about staying out of trouble.  It's not primarily about avoiding problems at all. Ethics is mainly about creating strength, in an individual person, a family, a community, business relationships, and life.

Starting from this perspective what then does it mean for a leader to be an ethical person?

If you see yourself as an ethical person, how do your decisions reflect your ethics?

How does your behavior demonstrate your ethics?

How does being an ethical person create strength in an organization?

Got any examples to share?

Talent, Systems, Relationships - The conversation continues

In the previous post, Steve Roesler comments:

3. Relationships. This is also a word that isn't often used. 'Getting along with others' is seen as the measurement in this area; 'relationships' conjure up touchy-feely images for many. This is often a diagnostic signal that I am in the room with a group who tend to view people more on the 'commodity' side and would really prefer that the commodities just perform what they are paid to perform without causing any icky-ness.

He's absolutely correct. Read the whole comment.

What he points to is a deficiency that exists in the organizational structure/systems of businesses. They don't know how to deal with relationships, character, ethics and the multitude of tangents to those ideas.

Why is this? Is this a personal issue? Or is this a product of the design of the systems. Are we at the mercy of the systems, that they have some sort of self-replicating mechanistic function that pushes the human equation out of the picture? I may be over stating it. What I do believe is that leaders can make a difference in creating systems and changing structures to enhance the human interaction that takes place in business.

As I mentioned in the previous post there are two phenomena that are taking place which point to this deficiency. One is the rise of the Talent guru in corporations. I personally know a couple of these guys. Part of what is interesting about them is that they created the position and sold it to senior leadership. It was not some strategy derived at the board level or C-level. It rose from individual leaders seeing what needs to be done to improve their business. Based on what they are telling me, talent is increasingly the battle ground of all businesses.  It is because what I'm hearing on another front.

I recently talked to two different top-level leaders of businesses where I live who are telling me that they 1) recognize that they need to change their approach to customer relations, 2) know that much of that has to do with developing their people's ability to develop relationships, and 3) have little confidence that they have the people who can do it. So, they feel trapped in an environment where they have to get better, they know how to get better, and don't see a way to make it happen. Talking about a stressful situation. In one instance, last year was the worst year his company has ever had, and this year is going the same direction.

At what point do leaders realize that the world has shifted under their feet, and what they know is only about 30-40% relevant to what they need to do now. We can say, "Let's improve their relationship development abilities." And that would make a difference. But would it make a sufficient difference to warrant to cost of the training.  I'm not sure. Why? Because the systems of the company, the structure of the business has to change in order to support greater levels of team work.  Systems change efforts are huge endeavors. In many cases, we are talking more that a systems or structure change, we are looking at a culture change. To change a culture is to bring in a new set of values that unite people around a certain conception of who they are and what their business is about. Once again, does it make sense?

The problem isn't simply having an ethical, character-based, relationship philosophy and the systems to support that belief. It is also attracting the people who will fit into this system. It is a talent question as well.

This week I heard two stories about the food service industry that illustrate this for me. Yesterday, I heard about a chef in a nationally known food chain. She is in her second career. She went back to school to get her culinary degree.  She took this job to support her family, with the hopes that one day she would have either her own restaurant or catering business. The company has organized the kitchens as self-organizing teams. She says it is chaos because no one in the kitchen believes in team work. They see their work as a job of tasks to get done and get out of there. So, if the team is to form, it requires no only someone taking the lead, and no one has that assigned responsibility, but also people who desire to be a team.  That is a character issue. It is a mess.

In the other story, the chefs in the kitchen in this hotel used to be at each other's throats all the time. It devolved to the point that knives would get thrown.  The company changed its policies, added some training, resolved the system issues within the kitchen, and now the kitchen is a standard for others in the region. One of chefs recently commented to one of the hotels managers after attending a conference, "How can those people work like that?" The manager responded, "You all used to be like those kitchens.  And now you aren't.  You just don't remember."

Both sound like Hell's Kitchen.

Here's my point. Businesses get stuck in the trap of circular reasoning. They believe the Idea that how they do things is how they should always do things. When things go bad, or don't work, they don't look deeply into their system or structure for the cause. They look at the people, or the externals of the business. They think the cost of changing is so high that it is a last resort. When they finally decided to change is often too late. They are correct that change has a cost. But not changing has a larger cost connected to it. It is called irrelevancy and extinction.Circle_3d_connectors

This is why we need to address the three dimensions of leadership in an integrated manner.  Steve's clients, and mine as well, may never want to talk about mission, character or relationships. I can understand this. They either think the question has already been answered, or that it is irrelevant to their core business.

The reality is that each dimension contributes to the strength of a business. If you are not clear about who you are and where you are going, or not going, you'll try every quick-fix on the internet and find an accelerating decline in performance.  Looking for the quick fix is a character issue. Developing the relationship dimension opens up the business to ideas that were hidden or unknown. Addressing the questions of systems and structure allows for sustainability to develop.

The problems are multitude. If you don't treat them in an integrated fashion, you don't really find the progress you need.  Having been engaged with a wide variety of organizations and leaders for over thirty years, this is what I've come to conclude.

In the economy we are in now, a real separation is taking place. A separation of the committed from the time-servers, check collectors is happening. It is a time of cleansing.  This is why this discussion is so important for so many people and their businesses.

Leadership and Boundaries

Watch this video of Josh Shipp

What immediately impressed me was how this young man understands boundaries.

Now read this story about a youth hockey riot in Utica, N.Y.  This stuff happens all the time.  The problem is adults who don't understand social boundaries.

We recently dismissed a boy from our scout troop because he refused to operate within the boundaries of safety and respect for the troop.

Boundaries are both cultural and structural. They function to not only guide groups toward common goals, but also protect them from destructive behavior.  They are cultural because they are formed in a tacit agreement between us based on shared values.  They are structural because they are essential to insuring the viability of an organization.

I believe it is the duty of leaders to set the boundaries for their organizations and their communities.  These boundaries need not only to be clear, but also the consequences for actions when those boundaries are crossed. 

If you have a connection to a school or some other youth organization, connect your kids to Josh's website.  Engage him to come talk with your kids about responsibility.  And as adults, listen to his message because it is not just for kids, but for all of us.

Josh understands this and is trying to communicate a message of responsibility to kids.  Read his Change This manifesto on how to talk with teenagers.  It's right on the money. 

The problem is not that kids don't understand boundaries, but adults don't.  Kids often times are victims of adults failure to understand what's appropriate and what isn't.

I'm glad to know that Josh is out there.  As an old guy, I think he is really cool.

Real Life Leadership: The truth can hurt, but honesty is the best policy in business partnerships

Here's my latest Real Life Leadership column published last week - The truth can hurt, but honesty is the best policy in business partnerships.

Quickly, the reason why we are not honest with our partners is that we are not honest with ourselves. When we aren't, we live in denial of our responsibility for the effect of our performance upon the business.

It this is an issue for you or your team, then let me recommend a very important book - Leadership and Self-Deception, by the Arbinger Institute. I've linked to it before. And I've said it is the most important leadership book that I've read in the past ten years.  If you don't deal with the core issue at the heart of this book, nothing else you read will have the kind of impact you desire.

I'm working on a couple charts that serve as a commentary this book. I'll post as soon as I'm satisfied they demonstrate what I see in the book.