by Gael O’Brien

Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee’s sudden announcement June 4, 2013 that he was retiring at the end of the month  was the latest example of Gee abandoning impulse control to connect with a crowd on his own terms. It raises questions about leadership vulnerabilities among the most seasoned of executives and how their boards respond.

Departing Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee

Departing Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee

A May 30, 2013 Associated Press story, based on a public document request, quoted a series of so-called jokes Gee made at an OSU Athletic Council meeting in December 2012 that disparaged the University of Notre Dame’s leaders, Roman Catholics, and both leaders and institutions at the University of Louisville and several Southeastern Conference schools.

Also made public in the AP article was a letter and “remediation plan” OSU trustees had sent Gee as a follow up to their discussions with him after learning about his comments. The trustees instructed him, among other things: to work with professionals to revisit his personal communications and speech content to better align with university goals and values; better target most appropriate speaking engagements for stronger alignment between his time, core messages and furthering university goals; and hire a coach to help him “facilitate and foster a healthy, open and diverse 21st century higher education institution with a global presence and voice.”  Gee was put on notice that should further lapses occur he could be fired.

“There have been many occasions on which your comments were insensitive and inappropriate and have offended others,” the trustee letter stated. “As a result, instead of your words promoting and uniting us, they have sometimes embarrassed and divided us.” Gee, as he has done whenever his attempts at humor offended, issued apologies to those affected.

Given Gee’s record of serving 32 years as president or chancellor of five institutions — West Virginia University, the University of Colorado, OSU (1990 – 1997, 2007 – 2013), Brown University and Vanderbilt University (chancellor) – unmatched by any peer in the country, the remediation requirements to reign him in, and refocus and better align his time center stage, imposed constraints he hadn’t experienced during his 13 years as president of OSU or elsewhere. Would such a plan have proven effective had Gee stayed for what was expected to be a 10-year tenure when he was recruited back in 2007?

It depends on how what was being rewarded was reinforced, and whether Gee’s conviction that his humor was more effective than not (as the rationale to keep doing what he was doing) could shift through a greater sensitivity to how careless language from leaders can normalize stereotypes and fuel a locker room mentality that undermines the university.

Credited with raising more than $1.6 billion, which has had a transformational effect on OSU, Gee had been praised for inspiring students and alumni, and being a tireless, charismatic, and omnipresent institutional cheerleader. Just one month before Gee’s talk to the Athletic Council, in November 2012, trustees had voted him a 40 percent performance bonus of $333,812 (for exceeding expectations) which raised his total 2013 compensation to over $2 million.

The remediation letter indicates that future compensation would be tied to how Gee carried out the expectations of his leadership enumerated there. In addition, it spelled out that how well he embodied the university values (such as promoting authenticity and transparency, openness and trust, and diversity and respect) would be a consideration in the trustees’ annual presidential performance review. There was no indication if this standard had been applied in previous reviews, including the review that set 2013 compensation and performance bonus.

In a speech to a Columbus, Ohio business and civic organization a few weeks after he received the March letter, Gee offered the explanation that “his off-hand comments” didn’t reflect his beliefs. If that is the case, it raises the question of when the “public role” Gee played was authentic.

“It is no secret that my attempts at humor, to break the tension, to ease myself into a challenging moment, to establish rapport, have sometimes had quite the opposite effect,” Gee told the group. “But let me just say this: Those kinds of off-hand comments do not reflect my own thinking and certainly they are not the Ohio State ideals. Twentieth century values have no place in a forward thinking world, and I take that very much as my own responsibility as a leader.”

That statement begs the question of how a leader integrates what he says with who he is. The separation Gee set up between his expression of humor and what he stands for is artificial. Yeats, in a line from one of his poems asks “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” The reality for Gee and the rest of us is that the dancer and the dance are one.

When asked in an interview about his resignation (which Gee insisted had nothing to do with fallout from his December comments) if the issues he’s had around his humor should be a warning to others, Gee replied, that his sense of humor has helped him more than it has hurt him. “I’ve been at this for 30 years, so if anything I can say that humor is a sustaining force.”

An Ohio newspaper editorial coming to Gee’s defense  defended the jokes Gee told in December as “pretty much standard locker room fare and clearly not meant to be taken seriously. If he had been serious, his remarks would have been well out of bounds. But Gee was joshing, not bashing.”

The challenge is that who decides what is meant to be taken seriously isn’t in the control of the joke teller. If the teller happens to be the leader of an institution (whether a university or corporation) trying to establish rapport with locker room humor is playing to the lowest common denominator, the worst possible equation for modeling values.

In Gordon Gee, OSU trustees didn’t have an opportunity to demonstrate success in how trustees can develop seasoned leaders who have a blind spot about a liability they see as a strength. In their search for Gee’s successor a key question is whether what is spelled out in Gee’s remediation letter is the standard the institution’s next leader will be held accountable for from the outset, what that would look like, and how exceeding expectations in that arena would be demonstrated.

As for Gee, turbulence remains a companion. He said after his resignation,  “I live in turbulent times and I’ve had a lot of headwinds, so almost every occasion, I have just moved on.” After July 1, 2013, his berth, for the time being, will be as a faculty member of OSU.

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.