While I am not proud of how some of the leaders at Penn State chose to cover up the wrongdoing of Jerry Sandusky, who during my time as an undergrad there was a pillar of the community, I am proud of how the university is taking the medicine issued by the courts and the NCAA. It’s not easy to see our beloved Nittany Lion logo next to the words “scandal” and “sanctions” and “ban” and “failure,” but it is what it is.
For those of you who may face a crisis in your business, and I certainly hope this never happens to you, this letter from Penn State president, Rodney Erickson, is an excellent example of how to take your medicine with as much dignity and integrity as possible. Further, it explains the changes and the initiatives that the university will undergo to ensure this kind of tragedy won’t happen again and to further the cause of prevention.
But let’s be real, underneath all this are people who simply must be seething at the whole affair let alone the ruling by the NCAA, which levied $60 million in fines, a four-year ban on post-season games and a reduction in the number of scholarships. Additionally, Joe Paterno’s winningest-coach-in-college-football record will not stand since all wins from 1998 to 2011 will be vacated.
There are finance people at the university who are totaling up the fines and the lawsuit exposure who have moved beyond shock and are stubbornly locked in their anger. Who can blame them? They are human and these are human responses. But they are not and should never be public responses.
We live in the Age of Integrity and as Jerry Sandusky and the leaders who surrounded him made decisions that demonstrated poor judgment and a lack of integrity have learned, in today’s world, transgressions will be found out. And the bigger the transgression the more likely it will become news.
So what can businesses and leaders do?
First and foremost, recognize that the Age of Integrity is real and we are all part of it no matter how powerful or untouchable we believe we are. We are neither powerful nor untouchable; that is an illusion.
Second, live a high-integrity life. If you have to justify your behavior to yourself, it’s probably not high-integrity behavior.
Third, if you do mess up correct the problem immediately and seek help if needed. Most messes cannot be cleaned up alone and plenty of qualified professionals in the legal, communications, mental health, you name it at your beck and call. It will cost, but it’s no time to be cheap.
Fourth, understand those you wrong will speak out eventually, so be prepared. If they do, own up to the truth and take your medicine with integrity. It’s the only chance you have to recover any shred of your brand.
These four steps are not easy, but did you expect them to be? Will following them cost you a lot of money, cost you everything you’ve worked for, everyone you love? Those are real possibilities. But they are not reasons to hide the truth because in The Age of Integrity, the truth will come out, and then where will you be? In a worse predicament.
I’m sure the emails I’ve been receiving from the Penn State president have been highly coached by people like me, legally vetted by high-paid lawyers and written by people who recognize they are in uncharted territory so they must tread carefully.
The whole Penn State ordeal has been a tragedy for the victims and their families. That hardly needs to be restated. But what does need to be stated is that it also has been and continues to be a lesson in integrity given to us by a brand that was the pinnacle and now must begin that slow climb back into the light.