Trusted Leaders do the right thing regardless of personal risk. Steve Gutzler
In 2012, Jerry Sandusky, former football coach at Penn State, was found guilty of 45 counts of child molestation (Drape, 2012 ). In the same year, Monsignor William Lynn, who oversaw hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania, was found guilty of child endangerment (Hurdle & Eckholm, 2012).
In Florida, my own back yard, two other cases received national attention. In the Trayvon Martin case, law enforcement officials declined to prosecute the young man who admitted killing a teenager (CNN Wire Service, 2012). At Florida A&M University, Robert Champion, the band’s drum major, died after hazing took place on a band bus after a football game (CBS News, 2012).
All these tragic events occurring at about the same time seemed to have one thing in common.
In each case, one or more individuals in charge apparently received information that could have led to very different action and results. Acting on this information could have prevented death, the appearance of an injustice, or further crime or injury.
I do not have all the information about what the individuals in charge actually knew, and I have no desire to place blame. In each case, the individuals who did not act must have based their decisions on circumstances that seemed important, and I feel confident that each of the people in leadership roles wishes he had made a different decision regarding how to proceed.
However, as leaders consider these and other tragic events, they have a responsibility to make sure similar events do not happen on their watch.
If the motto for physicians is, “First, do not harm,” the motto for leaders must be, “First, prevent harm from occurring.”
This charge can be very difficult in a leader’s hectic schedule. As leaders deal with the hundreds of pieces of information that come to them in a day, they must decide which are significant, which are valid and which are meaningless. As they try to make determinations about unpleasant or potentially damaging information, they should use the following guidelines to make their decisions and shape their actions.
• Listen without preconceived notions. Effective leaders must be willing to consider that what they believe or want to believe may not be true. People are often reluctant to report inappropriate behavior because they are afraid no one will listen to them or believe them. A courageous leader must be willing to listen and to evaluate unpleasant information.
• Ask questions, even uncomfortable ones. Effective leaders continue to ask questions until they are sure they have exhausted all possible sources of information. They find the origins of potentially damaging rumors and reports, and they spend time putting together all the pieces.
• Go below the surface. While trying to find the best in every person, effective and courageous leaders recognize that a charming, entertaining, attractive, intelligent, powerful (choose one or more) personality may hide the face of evil or deceit.
• Focus on the mission. Courageous leaders filter every decision through organizational or personal mission statements. They continue to ask: What is my purpose? What are my goals? In each of the cases mentioned above, the individuals in charge were in positions to protect, serve or defend vulnerable people. If one’s mission supersedes all other concerns, a leader’s choices for action become obvious.
• Clearly state intentions. Strong leaders make sure everyone knows that they take their responsibilities seriously and will not hesitate to take action if it is warranted. When everyone knows the leader will not look in the other direction when improprieties occur, individuals are more likely to act responsibly.
• Err on the side of caution. A leader walks a fine line between not acting and overreacting. However, when the potential for harm is great, a leader must err on the side of protecting the most vulnerable even when that is risky or inconvenient.
• Take a stand. Courageous leaders evaluate all the information they have, they consider the most appropriate course of action, and they confidently take a stand.
In each situation mentioned above, taking different action would have been uncomfortable. It would probably have led to criticism. It could also have led to angering powerful people in the community or the organization.
In some cases, taking courageous action can lead to losing the position of power one holds very dear. However, courageous leaders do not worry about hard feelings or criticism. They are willing to accept the risks because, in the end, they take action because it is the right thing to do.
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- CBS News. (2012, June 7). Robert Champion Hazing Death: FAMU trustees vote 'no confidence' in president James Ammons. Retrieved from CBS News: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-57449115-504083/robert-champion-hazing-death-famu-trustees-vote-no-confidence-in-president-james-ammons/
- CNN Wire Service. (2012, June 20). Sanford police chief fired in wake of Trayvon Martin case. Retrieved from CNN Justice: http://articles.cnn.com/2012-06-20/justice/justice_florida-martin-case-police-chief_1_stand-your-ground-law-police-dispatcher-shooting?_s=PM:JUSTICE
- Drape, J. (2012 , June 22). Sandusky Guilty of Sexual Abuse of 10 Young Boys. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/23/sports/ncaafootball/jerry-sandusky-convicted-of-sexually-abusing-boys.html?pagewanted=all
- Hurdle, J., & Eckholm, E. (2012, June 22). Cardinal’s Aide Is Found Guilty in Abuse Case. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/23/us/philadelphias-msgr-william-j-lynn-is-convicted-of-allowing-abuse.html?pagewanted=all