Leading with Trust

Losing The Moral Authority To Lead – Three Lessons From The Penn State Scandal

This past week we’ve seen the tragic consequences of what can happen when a trusted leader loses the moral authority to lead. Yesterday was the first time in 46 years that Penn State University played a football game without Joe Paterno as the head coach. Paterno spent 62 years building his career at Penn State, only to see it crumble in an instant as a result of one critical failure of judgement.

Joe Paterno is a Hall of Fame coach for good reason: Two national championships; five undefeated seasons; 23 top-ten finishes; 24 bowl victories (most ever); 87% graduation rate for his players; 409 victories (most ever); and 548 games coached, second only to the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg (578).

Joe Paterno and Penn State have been known as a model of stability and ethical behavior. In this day and age of recruiting violations, player misconduct, and booster improprieties, not once has Penn State been under NCAA sanctions during Joe Paterno’s leadership. Since he joined the Penn State coaching staff in 1950 (12 U.S. presidents have served during this time!), Paterno has risen to demigod status within the state of Pennsylvania and in the world of college football. Given this background, you can see why the child molestation scandal involving former coach Jerry Sandusky, and Paterno’s role in not fully investigating and reporting the alleged crimes to the proper authorities, has shaken Penn State and the college football community to its core.

As a father of two sons, a coach of youth sports, and a student, practitioner, and teacher of trust-based leadership, I’ve been disgusted and disheartened by what’s happened at Penn State. The blatant abuse of power by those in leadership and the lack of concern for the children victimized is absolutely inexcusable. It’s been an utter failure of institutional leadership that warranted nothing less than the removal of those who presided over these events.

Contemplating the events of the past week have reminded me of three fundamental lessons for all of us in leadership positions:

1. Leaders are held to higher standards. The Holy Scriptures capture this idea perfectly in Luke 12:48 “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Joe Paterno’s error in judgement came in believing the extent of his responsibility stopped at informing his athletic director of the alleged illegal activities. It seems unfathomable that Paterno would not recognize the severity of the wrongdoing involved in the actions of his former coach, but it was his responsibility as the leader of the football program to personally see these allegations fully investigated. When one of our team members brings a problem to us, particularly one that may involve illegal activity, it is our responsibility to notify ALL the appropriate authorities, and not try to minimize our personal responsibility by passing the buck to someone else.

2. Leaders are accountable for what happens on their watch. Yes, you are your brother’s keeper. When a problem occurs on your team, you are ultimately accountable whether you were personally involved in the situation or not. Leaders don’t have the privilege of enjoying all the benefits of being in charge without accepting the responsibility that comes with it. This is the exact reason that it was appropriate for Joe Paterno to be fired (along with other university leaders). I’ve read articles that have tried to excuse Paterno’s accountability by justifying that he did his part by informing his athletic director. That is really beside the point when it comes to accountability. The football program and all the activities and people associated with it were ultimately under Paterno’s stewardship. The buck stops with him and it stops with all of us as leaders. It may not seem fair, but it’s reality.

3. Leaders have a moral obligation to protect those in positions of low power. The most disturbing issue in this whole scandal is the lack of concern given to the victims, those young boys powerless to protect themselves. I believe that being a leader, whether as a coach, parent, or manager on the job, comes with a sacred trust. Leaders are placed in positions of power that comes with a duty to protect and care for those under their charge. The leaders at Penn State violated this sacred trust. Power has the ability to cloud our judgement and cause us to misplace our priorities. One can surmise this was the case at Penn State. Those who were victimized were essentially ignored in an effort to protect the university’s reputation. Leaders have a moral obligation to give voice to those who don’t or can’t have their own.

A bright light in this situation is that the newly appointed president of Penn State, Rodney Erickson, recognizes the task of rebuilding trust that lays ahead of him. In both video and written messages to the Penn State community, Erickson has stated that he will lead the university to reorient its culture and restore the moral imperative of doing the right thing. He has expressed remorse and support for those victimized and has committed to actions that will lead to greater transparency and trust in the future.

What are your thoughts about the Penn State scandal and its implications for leaders? Feel free to leave a comment.

A Brain, a Heart, and Courage – Three Requirements for Rebuilding Trust

What does the Wizard of Oz have to offer us when it comes to rebuilding trust? Three things: a brain, a heart, and courage.

During a recent TrustWorks! training class for a client, I was leading participants through a process of crafting an outline for holding a conversation with someone to address the state of low trust in their relationship. At one point a participant asked, “Do people really do this? I can’t imagine having a conversation with someone and saying ‘I don’t trust you.'”

That question prompted a rich discussion on the emotional courage and personal maturity it takes to address issues of low or broken trust in a relationship. As I’ve thought about courage, the image of the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz keeps popping into my mind. Not to over-simplify the complex and difficult issue of rebuilding trust, I think the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Cowardly Lion offer some insights into what it takes to address issues of trust in relationships.

Dorothy: “How can you talk if you don’t have a brain?”
Scarecrow: “I don’t know…But some people without brains do an awful lot of talking…don’t they?” 

A Brain – You need to be smart about the way you approach the situation when you’re rebuilding trust. I wouldn’t recommend opening the conversation by saying “I don’t trust you.” Before engaging in a conversation, you should think through the reasons why you don’t trust someone. Ask yourself a series of “why” questions to narrow down the cause of low trust to specific behaviors. When you do have the conversation, use “I” language to take ownership of your own feelings and to lower defensiveness with the other person. Keep the conversation focused on the specific behaviors that are causing low trust rather than attacking the character of the other person. Going into a conversation to discuss trust issues without being prepared is a recipe for disaster.

Dorothy: “Goodbye Tinman. Oh, don’t cry! You’ll rust so dreadfully.”
Tinman: “Now I know I’ve got a heart ’cause it’s breaking…”

A Heart – Trust is built when you demonstrate care and concern for others. If you don’t care for the quality of your relationship with someone, it will be tough to build or rebuild trust with that person. I’m not saying it’s a requirement to have a deep, personal relationship with someone in order to have a high level of trust, but you do need to recognize and appreciate the value of the relationship, both to you and the other person. As part of your preparation to address an issue of low trust, make a list of qualities you appreciate in the other person and reasons you value your relationship. When dealing with trust issues, it’s easy to only focus on the negative aspects of the relationship and disregard all the positive things that may exist.

Cowardly Lion: “All right, I’ll go in there for Dorothy. Wicked Witch or no Wicked Witch, guards or no guards, I’ll tear them apart. I may not come out alive, but I’m going in there. There’s only one thing I want you fellows to do.”
Tinman, Scarecrow: “What’s that?”
Cowardly Lion: “Talk me out of it!”

Courage – Addressing an issue of low or broken trust can be a daunting task that requires a high degree of personal maturity and emotional courage. Courage can come in many different shapes and sizes. When speaking of this topic, Winston Churchill said “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Depending on your role in the situation, you may need to muster up the courage to do the speaking, or you may need to humble yourself to do the listening. If the situation is just too sensitive for you to address on your own, seek out the help of a qualified third-party to help mediate or facilitate the discussion.

We all wish that rebuilding trust was as simple as seeing the Wizard of Oz and having him bestow on us a medal or proclamation that solves our problem. Rebuilding trust isn’t that easy, but it is possible if we courageously and intelligently approach the situation with care and concern to restore the relationship on solid ground.

Five Steps to Repair Broken Trust

I believe that most leaders strive to be trustworthy. There aren’t too many leaders who wake up in the morning, roll out of bed and say to themselves, “Hmmm…I think I’ll try to break someone’s trust today!” Yet even in spite of our best intentions, there will be times when we damage the level of trust in our relationships. Sometimes it’s due to our own stupidity when we make choices that we know are wrong or hurtful to others. Other times we unknowingly erode trust by engaging in behaviors that others interpret as untrustworthy. Regardless of how it happens, breaking trust in a relationship is a serious matter. When a breach of trust occurs, there are five steps a leader should take to repair the relationship:

  1. Acknowledge that trust has been broken. As we’ve learned from the success of the twelve-step recovery process, acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step to healing. Don’t use the “ostrich” technique of burying your head in the sand and hoping the situation will resolve itself because it won’t. The longer you wait to address the situation, the more people will perceive your weakness as wickedness.
  2. Admit your role in causing the breach of trust. For some leaders this may be a challenging step. It’s one thing to acknowledge that there is a problem, it’s a whole other thing to admit you caused it. Our ego and false pride are usually what prevent us from admitting our mistakes. Muster up the courage, humble yourself, and own up to your actions. This will pay huge dividends down the road as you work to rebuild trust.
  3. Apologize for what happened. A sincere apology involves admitting your mistake, accepting responsibility, asking for forgiveness, and taking steps to make amends to the offended party. Explaining the reasons why something happened is fine, but don’t make excuses by trying to shift the blame to something or someone other than yourself.
  4. Assess where the breakdown in trust happened using the TrustWorks! ABCD Trust Model. Did you erode trust by not being Able, Believable, Connected, or Dependable? People form perceptions of our trustworthiness when we use, or don’t use, behaviors that align with these four elements of trust. Knowing the specific element of trust you violated will help you take specific actions to fix the problem.
  5. Amend the situation by taking corrective action to repair any damage that has been done, and create an action plan for how you’ll improve in the future. Your attempts at rebuilding trust will be stalled unless you take this critical step to demonstrate noticeable changes in behavior.

You can’t control the outcome of this process and there is no guarantee that following these steps will restore trust in the relationship. However, the important thing is that you have made the effort to improve yourself as a leader. You’ll be able to lay your head on the pillow at night with a clear conscience that you’ve done everything under your power to cultivate the soil for trust to once again grow and flourish.

I recommend reading Ken Blanchard’s “The 4th Secret of the One Minute Manager” as an elegantly simple reminder of the power of an effective apology.

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