July 13, 2012 at 8:59 AM ET
A scathing report on Penn State’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky scandal offers insight into what can happen when a boss has a lot of power and little tolerance for dissent.
The report, which was made public Wednesday, accused top officials, including former coach Joe Paterno and former university President Graham Spanier, of concealing critical facts and showing a lack of empathy for child abuse victims.
The report specifically called out “a president who discouraged discussion and dissent” and “a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.”
Experts say it’s a tragic and horrific result of an all-too-familiar problem that is hardly limited to the locker room or sports arena.
“I don’t think it’s just restricted to athletics,” said Jed Hughes, who is currently vice chairman of the recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International but also spent 20 years as a football coach. “Look what happened with the financial crisis. It’s pervasive in society.”
Of course, it takes confidence to get to the top, and many people like working for a decisive, larger-than-life boss.
“It’s great, obviously, to have an inspirational leader, a respected leader, because that can do a lot to ignite motivation for accomplishing the mission of the organization,” said Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of "The Progress Principle," about how to engage employees.
But that kind of reverence for the boss or coach can become problematic if it’s allowed to go too far.
The first danger is that employees focus on pleasing and protecting their boss rather than doing good work or exposing wrongdoing. A second problem is that employees become afraid to question the boss or criticize any of his or her ideas.
Amabile said she’s seen situations where a well-respected and successful boss becomes insulated from outside ideas and lower-ranking people become fearful of speaking up.
That can lead to disasters like the Sandusky case. But it also can mean that top bosses don’t hear good ideas and allow the bad ones to move forward unquestioned.
“Most good leaders know what they’re good at, and know what they’re not good at,” said Jodi Glickman, founder of the workplace consultancy Great on the Job.
Still, it’s an easy rut to get into and tough one to break free from. Great leaders are often revered both inside and outside their organizations, and that can easily feed the ego.
“It’s hard to essentially not believe your own press and not to believe that you’re invincible,” Amabile said.
Hughes said coaches are especially vulnerable to those problems because it’s a cutthroat world where people are looking for very strong, decisive leaders on the field and off of it -- and are quick to fire those that don’t measure up.
“When you’re in that world where you think you’re invincible, you do things because you just think you can get away with it,” he said.
To avoid becoming that kind of boss, Amabile said you need to ask for honest feedback and -- most importantly –- be prepared to take the good and bad feedback you receive.
“You have to invite it, and then you have to respond openly to it,” she said.
At Penn State, the university's board of trustees appeared to be making that effort when they hired the outside investigator, former FBI director Louis Freeh, to produce what turned out to be the scathing report.
The university president cited in the report has since stepped down, and Paterno has passed away.
On Wednesday, trustee Kenneth Frazier, head of the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co., said board members were deeply ashamed and vowed to prevent anything like it from happening again.
“This marks a new era for Penn State and for our board of trustees,” he said.
Bill Dedman contributed reporting.
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