Late last month former FBI Director Louis Freeh released a 250-plus page report documenting his independent investigation into the actions of Penn State with respect to Gerald Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children.
The investigation was as comprehensive as any I’ve ever seen: 430 witness interviews and a review of over 3 million documents. Its results were a fairly scathing report condemning the Penn State culture in significant respects and laying personal culpability for the abuse at the feet of the most senior University personnel.
As for University President Graham Spanier, the report labeled him “a president who discouraged discussion and dissent.” This leadership style, along with “a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community,” created an environment where Sandusky was able to sexually abuse children for years and years, according to Freeh.
There is a lot to digest in the report and obviously a lot of takeaways. One that strikes me as particularly important pertains to leadership style.
Those who lead by squelching “discussion and dissent” are doing a huge disservice to their organizations (not to mention to their own personal legacies). Organizational culture starts at the top and trickles down the organizational chart. In other words, employees are watching leadership, to see what they do (and not just what they say). A leader who is not open to feedback sends the message that he or she simply does not care.
It’s in the face of that kind of indifference that bad actors are allowed to thrive. Leaders who care about their organizational culture should clearly send that message. This can be done in a number of ways. For starters, treat others with respect. Make respect a cornerstone of your culture by incorporating it into your core values and, better yet, training on it throughout the organization. Remember, your employees are watching.