Leadership Lessons From The Parable Of Penn State

Like much of the nation, I have been stewing about the Penn State scandal. And, like many, I have been thinking about what lessons can be drawn.

Photo courtesy pennstatelive (Flickr)

There are many raw emotions when it comes to the situation. Many are writing much more eloquently than I could about the disgusting betrayal of trust at the core of the situation, about the moral cowardice exhibited by almost all actors, and the arrogance of the powerful few in the face of the weak. All these things make my blood boil, even as my more moderate self counsels me to withhold judgment until I know more.

But, for leaders of mission-based organizations, there is a clear lesson that can be learned here. It is this: Beware the successful program.

The way the Penn State situation has unfolded has shone a light on the power of sports programs in American academe. Football, for many large colleges, is a highly successful revenue-producing program. Yet, it is just a minor part of the mission of any academic institution. The power that football wields, by dint of its success, vastly outstrips its importance to the mission of a school.

Football, and other intercollegiate sports, very easily becomes the tail that wags the dog. This is the danger that organization leaders must be aware of. In the face of a successful but non-core program, it is easy to rationalize that it must be continued. A leader need only point to all the good that it makes possible — all the good that its money makes possible, to put a finer point on it.

However, once one sets foot on this slope of reasoning, it quickly becomes slippery and an institution can find itself in the valley below. While the Penn State scandal provides a dramatic and high-stakes example, the principle applies beyond sports and beyond schools.

Many years ago, I was in charge of a major program administered by a small nonprofit organization. My program was responsible for about 35% of the organization’s budget each year. However, it was a bit off the beaten path for the organization, which was focused mainly on delivering training and developing new intellectual frameworks. My program, on the other hand, was focused on political advocacy.

Over a short span of time, because my program was so alien to the core activities of the parent organization, I was granted a great deal of autonomy. When it came time to renew the grant application with our funder, the prospect of losing the revenue source became alarming — and so we crafted proposals that would get funded, first and foremost. In some cases, I believe this was at the expense of the mission of the parent organization.

The situation was not cut-and-dried. It was possible, at every juncture, to make a good case: This program was sort of in line with our mission, and it enabled so many other important activities . . . so we ought to keep at it.

Eventually, the chief funder of the program ceased providing resources because of a shift in focus. I believe this was in the end a good thing for the parent organization, as it forced a decision that, up to that point, the leadership team had been loathe to make.

Those who lead mission-driven organizations should take heed of the parable we are offered by the Penn State scandal. It appears that, in the case of the actors involved in Happy Valley, the power of the individual program was sufficient to maintain silence. In many organizations, there is some small pocket that wields a similarly outsize force. They are allowed to continue, in many cases, out of convenience or a sense that they are necessary for survival.

Leaders need to ask themselves: What programs is my organization inappropriately addicted to? How prepared am I to cut the cord?

The answers may give one pause, but they should be heeded.

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

2 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons From The Parable Of Penn State”

  1. Thoughtful article. Penn State is one of the places I taught a two day ethics seminar (funded Kellogg Fdn. project). Nobody from athletics attended. Was it the schedule or did they make their own institutional rules as a favored unit? I stayed at the Nittany Lion Inn along with rabid fans in town for a Saturday football game. Teaching ethics at Penn State has been something on my resume that I am proud of and now what it means has changed entirely….

  2. Good and thought-provoking observations, Brad. In the case of university sports programs, especially football and basketball, their value to the schools have already been vetted. Although they are largely ancillary to the overall core mission of their schools, their monetary and student recruitment value assures their continued status. And because, as you said, they are also largely autonomous in their operation, they develop their own internal culture, separate from that of the host. When those conditions are permitted to grow without strict administrative oversight, tragedies like the one at Penn State not only occur, but are hidden from public scrutiny when they do. Another, though less morally egregious, example of an ancillary activity run amok was the recent “Burning Tower” collapse at Texas A&M when many students were killed and maimed in that long-standing ancillary tradition. Both are clarion calls to universities and other large institutions to remain engaged in the direct oversight of the kinds of programs you describe in your article.

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