Lessons from Penn State & Paterno for Organizational Change
There are times when being a leader or Change Leader is tough. At our best we avoid doing harm. Nonetheless, change is fraught with risk and there is no more harsh a teacher of humility than shame.
Now, I know what you’re thinking…I held a long debate with myself before agreeing to post this commentary. Admittedly, I feel worse for wading in, but there are lessons here for organizational change. I have NO interest in litigating the events or exercising premature conclusions about Mr. Paterno’s level of involvement in the scandal. Observations of the man over the years suggest to me that he made his peace with his Maker and a penance will be levied—what that is or how severe that may be is not up to me and I cannot begin to speculate! That doesn’t erase what many are living with in the wake of this scandal here on Earth…
Chief Lesson?--The ends that one achieves through his paid role as a leader, no matter how great, do not absolve that leader from willful neglect and other devastating choices. Said another way: “We are the product of our choices; they will stick to us for as long as we are remembered and no amount of ‘reconciliatory calculus’ to weigh the outcomes of those choices against a sum total of other outcomes we helped create will reshape our final grade so that ‘on balance’ or ‘overall’ we were just grand.”
What do the decisions you make as a Leader of Change say about you? Here are some observations about the stickiest of scenarios in which almost every Change Leader finds him/herself over time:
- Transparency is great, BUT--Does that mean I have to share emerging plans in real time?...Am I obliged to tell the team that the project’s business case included cost savings from workforce reductions?...How soon do I tell someone that they may lose their job?
- *You must weigh transparency with reliability—I cannot share that information yet because it is not reliable (i.e., it may literally change tomorrow).
- *In the case of Coach Paterno, there are clear expectations about some things that must be shared if there is even a ‘question’ of impropriety. Under these conditions, there are no contingencies or balance to apply—report it NOW.
- Pressure comes from many sources (top management, consultants, vendors, end-users, incentive-laden compensation, etc.)and may seem to push me to do things I don’t want to, withhold information (see, “transparency”), or move forward when we are not ready to succeed.
- *Your role as the Change Leader is to be the steward of what is in the best interests of the organization and to determine whom you are ultimately serving.
- *I submit that the head coach of a Division I NCAA football program is ultimately serving the interests of the children or young adults put in their care—above all else. In that case, safety must be above profitability, reputation, or trophies. Failure to do so is the equivalent of keeping a drug that kills 5% of patients on the shelf because “it helped so many others.”
- You cannot sell out one constituency for another if you agree they are each important.
- *In the case of PSU, decisions were made to shelter and protect the reputation of one individual (and perhaps the “institution”) and in the course of doing so, discount and disparage individuals who may have been victims or whistle-blowers (though under other circumstances, the coaches would all agree that these constituents are a priority).
- *Trying to garner favor by touting change project leaders (those “inside the tent”) and bad-mouthing or denigrating others (e.g., top management, managers tied to old practices, employees who question the changes or their value)is a sure path to loss of credibility (selfish AND a sell-out).
- When you’re THE leader, what happens on your watch, happens on your watch.
- *PSU was not swept under a once-in-a-millennia inland tsunami or other rare natural disaster. Leadership there created a culture (intentionally or not) in which “the Program” was Priority #1 and that served to quiet reporting, action, adjudication, and further prevention of known risks.
- *As a Change Leader, you mustn’t be quick to point to excuses like a lack of top management support, dedicated resources or end-users/middle managers who don’t “get it.” Are you not charged with creating the readiness to launch the project and advance the project only based on its prospects for success?...pulling the brake chain on the train if necessary because risks are unaddressed?
Granted, this application to a change project pales next to the horrors of what transpired at PSU and the neglect presumably demonstrated by program leaders there. Still, a brief reflection on how easy it is to swing from being an inclusive and constructive force for change to an insular, parochial, and even self-serving force for change provides a cautionary tale.
Share the White Paper at this link with your team. Start a discussion about how to ensure that as you move forward, you will be making the right choices—those that define constructive change and serving others in your care: http://www.lastwordonchange.com/simple-solution/4-simple-questions