Friday, November 15, 2013

Incognito, Nixon, Paterno and the Pope

Last week, I met a remarkable woman, a newly appointed CEO.  We were discussing her institution, a non-profit healthcare provider serving the underprivileged community in the inner city.  She confessed that she and her management team were struggling to re-define their business strategy.  When I asked her about the leadership culture, she professed that she was proud of the culture that her team embraced.

I probed a bit and she told me (I’m paraphrasing):  “we get together on a regular basis to talk about what we’re doing and we remind each other that our mission is more important than our individual needs.” 

It’s often said that culture starts at the top and that’s how it happens. 
Miami Dolphins Incognito and Martin
Much has been written about how the 300 pounders in theMiami Dolphins locker room treat one another.  The pundits, including a lot of league veterans, have told us that the team’s leadership has failed if they didn’t know what was going on.  Culture starts at the top after all.  But, while the criticism is well aimed, it strikes me that the pundits deserve a 15-yard penalty for “piling on”.

The ex-players and coaches and the sports journalists from ESPN and other news outlets are part of the community – the league, the veterans, the media – that benefits from the NFL’s continued success.  It’s in their best interest to describe the event as an isolated incident and blame local management.

We’ve seen it many times – Nixon’s White House, Penn State and, perhaps the most egregious of all, the Vatican. 
Nixon addressing the press

Cover-ups are instinctive.  Self-deception is the rule not the exception, which is why so many decision makers behave in ways that will likely hurt them and others in the long haul.  It’s why so many students and alumni of Penn State came to Joe Paterno’s defense.  It’s why so many Catholics continued to admire Pope John Paul II even after it was revealed that the church had covered up the child molestation scandal for decades. 

Cover-ups are strategic too. Those conspiring at Penn State were rational in their belief that adverse publicity would destroy careers and the reputation of their institution.  Unfortunately, it’s not unlike low interest loan.  Sooner or later there’s a balloon payment due. 
Sandusky with Paterno
In my days as a naval officer and as a midshipman at the Naval Academy, we often debated whether leaders are born or made.  It’s a variation on nature vs. nurture, often discussed in child rearing.

There are people who are natural born leaders.  There is an indefinable aura about them.   Political and military leaders like Colin Powell and Nelson Mandela come to mind.  Business leaders like Meg Whitman and Steve Jobs also fit the mold. 

But, many good or even great leaders lack charisma.  Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a great example.  A quiet even unassuming man, he gave up an easy glide into retirement at a Texas university to help President Bush restore leadership and integrity to the Pentagon.  And, he stayed on when asked by President Obama to ease the transition to a new administration in the midst of two wars.  Clearly, he viewed the mission as more important than his individual needs.

And, it’s fair to say that not all charismatic people are great leaders as anyone who has read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs knows by now. 

Leadership skills and behavior can be learned.  And, it’s important to learn those skills as you grow and develop in your life and career.  You need to know what to do, how to respond, how to lead before the crisis hits.  In the end, you are what you do, especially in the midst of chaos.  And, what the conspirators in Washington, University Park and Rome have done is unworthy of anyone who aspires to leadership. 

Pope John Paul II
As for Miami, time will tell.  But, the central conundrum of crisis management is that doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily save the institution or the people running it.  That’s why it’s so hard for top management to come clean.  What would have happened to the administrators at Penn State, the top guys in Nixon’s White House or the Pope’s Cardinals and Bishops if they had done the right thing?

They would not have been lauded for their honesty.  Whistle blowers usually don’t fare well in modern society.

Our psychological need to think well of ourselves combined with our instinct for self-preservation makes it much more difficult to do what’s right, what’s best for the institution we represent.

That’s why it’s so rare that we meet someone who places mission above his or her personal needs.



  1. Bob Gill
    Owner at Shrimp Landing

    Agreed, but the RIGHT and best action to take in the event of a transgression, is to acknowledge the problem as soon as possible, apologize for its occurrence, and affirm corrections are being implemented immediately. Or more colloquially, 'fess up immediately and move on. Far and away the best thing to do, but oh so difficult for most.

  2. Eileen George
    CEO and Founder at Integrity Resources & Imaging Services, LLC

    I do not find cover up a natural instinct. I find it very hard to keep things from my team.

    So there is never a cover up. I have work for many companies that believe in that as a policy. It breeds ill health and many unhappy employees.

  3. Michael Carron
    Director at Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (Gulf of Mexico Alliance)

    Someone said something like, "Confess and do it quickly." It's amazing how many times the coverup is worse than the issue being covered up. The problem with the Catholic Church is not so much that they just covered up (although that was criminal), they reassigned the pedophiles to continue working in proximity of other children. The pedophiles are "sick." The bishops and other Church hierarchy who reassigned them are criminals.

  4. Jason G. Ramage, MS, MBA, RBP
    Staff Scientist

    I think part of the problem is people don't like to admit they've been an admirer of someone so seriously flawed. So rather than acknowledge that the object of their admiration is perhaps not so wonderful, they double down and become that much more adamant. Perhaps it's a 'save face' mechanism; maybe Penn Staters feel an indictment of Paterno is an indictment of all of them. Ditto for the Catholic Church.

    I think it's important to realize that a person can have wonderful and horrible traits at the same time. Paterno obviously excelled as a football coach; his flaw was letting his passion for winning get in the way of doing the morally right thing. Nixon had some great accomplishments (strong record on environmentalism; ending offensive biological weapons research) but was undone because he failed to recognize limits to his own power. Recognizing a failure in leadership doesn't negate the positive; but the positives are certainly no excuse for the failures you mention.

    Another great column John. I always enjoy reading them.

  5. Alison Brown
    Feminist Civic & Social Organization Leader

    The Catholic church is definitely not into stopping admiring someone with feet of clay. Indeed, they are making one of the 20th century Popes with blood on his hands a saint. Seems they think the best defense is a good offense and, I must admit, it is pretty offensive.

  6. Eric Webber
    Systems Engineer II at CGI

    First post so please be gentle.

    If I'm understanding John's point, it's that the cover-up undermines the authority a leader might otherwise possess. Nixon was impeached due to his attempt at covering up Watergate not his direct involvement in it. There are many who forget that Clinton was impeached not due to his philandering with an intern, but the fact that he perjured himself to a grand jury. I don't believe John suggests we can't assess the totality of an individual but rather that it diminishes his effectiveness to rally support or guide opinion while in a position of power or influence.

    A quick aside:
    Alison, I am curious as to what specific blood you are suggesting John Paul II has on his hands. As a Feminist Civic and Social Organization Leader I lean towards his position on contraception and abortion but in the context of Paterno I could as easily suspect its the Vatican's handling of the American molestation accusations. If its either or both (or something I've not considered), does that outweigh his contribution to the liberation of eastern Europe? It would seem ~190 million people free from totalitarianism might blunt some of that offensiveness.

  7. Alison Brown
    Feminist Civic & Social Organization Leader

    Eric, I was referring to Pius XII.

  8. Alison Brown
    Feminist Civic & Social Organization Leader

    Eric, you wrote "As a Feminist Civic and Social Organization Leader I lean towards his position on contraception".
    I looked at your profile and I am at a loss to say which feminist organisations you lead or have led.

  9. Eric Webber
    Systems Engineer II at CGI

    I assumed incorrectly you were referring to PJP's beatification. It seemed a fit with the more recent examples presented. Being unfamiliar with the particulars of Pius' papacy I'm interested what blood you'd be referring to.

    Bad editing on my part. It should probably have read:
    As a Feminist Civic and Social Organization Leader, I imagine it would be his position on contraception and abortion but in the context of Paterno I could as easily suspect its the Vatican's handling of the American molestation accusations.

    Having already established my own false assumption the above is merely for clarification.

  10. Alison Brown
    Feminist Civic & Social Organization Leader

    Heavens, Eric, must I spoon feed you? Just do a search on Pius XII and the jews or the holocaust.

  11. Eric Webber
    Systems Engineer II at CGI

    I'm not sure how much responsibility for Nazi atrocities I can lay at the feet of a pope who ascended after the Polish invasion and whose Vatican lies within the capitol of fascist Italy. Polish Catholics seemed no less safe from the gas chambers than Jews, Roma, Orthodox Slavs, etc. I don't intend to be an apologist, I just wonder how much influence over events he is expected to have had. I am certainly open to other arguments to the contrary.