by Gael O’Brien

What do you do if in the stress of crisis you make the right decision, but execute it in a way that discounts the human impact — which only makes the crisis worse?

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Joe Paterno in 2006.

If you are a trustee of Pennsylvania State University, you discover that the window of mitigating flawed execution can close well before you are ready.

Although the child sex abuse crisis at Penn State erupted in early November 2011, and some steps have been taken to try and restore trust, a series of blunders persisted into January 2012 that continued to discount the emotional impact of crisis.

On January 20, 2012, Penn State trustees met and elected new leadership – the officers who had fired iconic football coach Joe Paterno by telephone were replaced. The trustees announced a series of actions that begin to address some of the very human issues the crisis has been about, including paying for victims abuse-related health costs, and employee training on reporting abuse.

Whether the trustees’ new chair Karen Peez, vice chairman of the Bank of New York Mellon, would have tried to enlist Paterno’s support in healing the wound of those anguished by his firing became a moot point. On January 22, 2012, Paterno — considered the “winningest” college coach in football history — died of lung cancer that was discovered after he was fired. The wound for students and alumni only deepened.

Going forward, re-uniting the Penn State community and rebuilding trust needs to be less about brand building (“We are Penn State”) and more focused on connecting, particularly with student and alumni stakeholders, around the concept of the university as a learning environment – admitting mistakes and what specifically should have been done differently. Statements like “All of us, including the board, with the wisdom of hindsight could have done things differently,” said by Peez at the trustee meeting January 20, miss the point.

There is a rich opportunity for real dialogue in small and large groups and in university-wide forums about what went wrong, beginning with what is obvious now, without waiting for the results of the five investigations underway (federal, state and internal) including:

— Students and alumni already know that firing anyone by telephone is totally disrespectful; doing it to someone who was the face of Penn State for 46 years, with whom most had a greater emotional connection than with any of Penn State’s presidents, caused outrage. How the trustees own the mistake non- defensively (as opposed to their justification given January 18, 2011) is a teachable moment and a stepping stone to trust.

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Penn State Athletics Web Site - January 23, 2012

— While respecting all Paterno’s accomplishments, part of the teachable moment is his 2002 leadership failure. He didn’t follow up on information he passed on about a young boy potentially being sexually molested. In his only interview following his firing, it was clear Paterno hadn’t come to terms with the impact of what he failed to do. Understanding that even iconic leaders make mistakes and how mistakes can be avoided is an important discussion topic for students.

— Saying your administration will stand for transparency and communication to move the Penn State community forward raises expectations you will deliver on it. President Rodney Erickson (promoted from provost to president after Graham Spanier was fired with Paterno) hosted “Town Hall” meetings attended by over 1,000 alumni earlier this month. However, their value was severely compromised when, to the irritation of alumni, he deferred the bulk of their questions, which were about Paterno’s firing, to the trustees who weren’t represented at the meeting. One alumnus commented,  “the guy that’s taking the bullets is not the guy that we need to hear from. It’s the trustees. It speaks volumes that he’s up there and they’re not.”

To pass through the crisis successfully, it will be essential for the trustees, the administration, students, faculty, staff, and alumni to own the crisis without PR equivocation. During the “Town Hall” meetings, Erickson told alumni that it “grieves”  him when people talk about “the Penn State scandal.” He said it should be called, “the Sandusky scandal,” after the former PSU football coach now facing more than 50 charges of child sex abuse.

Like it or not, Penn State has become another learning lab for crisis and its aftermath. It may be a year or more before the findings of all the investigations on what went wrong are concluded. The criminal trials – Sandusky’s for sexually molesting minors and two former Penn State administrators’ for perjury and failure to report child sex abuse – haven’t started yet.

In the meantime, Penn State has the opportunity to wrestle with important questions that can define whether it will become stronger because of the crisis: questions like what priority to place on the human impact (emotional intelligence and how respect and compassion play out); what is meant and expected by ethical behavior and compliance; what was there about the culture that made the crisis possible;  how to measure the football culture’s impact on the rest of the university; and how to tolerate discomfort with unflattering headlines while the focus is on trust building, not brand building.

Photos: Joe Paterno on sidelines in 2006 via Wikimedia Commons; Paterno on GoPSUsports.com.

Gael OBrien_ID_CropGael O’Brien is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a thought leader on building leadership, trust, and reputation and writes The Week in Ethics.