Institutional Denial and The Immoral Leader

I too read/heard/watched the media “uproar” about the deplorable behavior of Rutgers’ basketball coach Mike Rice.  I also watched and noticed the relatively little bad press the university received about the issue. In a set of circumstances reminiscent of the recent Penn State child abuse scandal, the university appears to have been well aware of the circumstances. However, like Penn State, for a myriad of reasons – not all of which we have heard yet – the university took no appreciable action until the viral video displaying Rice’s truly abusive behavior left them with no choice.

Organizational tendencies like this one are not just prevalent in universities or giant corporations. They permeate the very establishments we work in or do business with every day. In our own organizations how frequently do we deny, ignore, rationalize, or even cover up inappropriate behavior rather than confronting it and addressing it? If you’re in the student transportation business you know that school site or department that is definitely not doing things right. It’s not your job to fix it, but you’re certain that if it were, you’d address the pattern of not taking action on problems.


Disgraced BP CEO
Tony Hayward

I couldn’t help thinking about Tony Hayward, the former CEO of British Petroleum, as I listened to Rutgers president Barchi joke about how his job is always on the line. His explanation that he’s been so busy trying to integrate a new medical school into his campus that he didn’t have time to pay more attention to this problem caused me to flash to Hayward in the wake of the Deep Water Horizon disaster. While thousands of people in the Gulf had their lives totally destroyed by his company’s negligence, Hayward infamously complained “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

We see this behavior all too often in institutions which have lost track of their purpose. It’s a kind of institutional denial. Instead of owning a problem, they begrudgingly accept very limited responsibility if they accept any responsibility at all. Usually they are led by leaders who aren’t. Leadership requires paying attention to signs that things are going wrong. When there are blatantly obvious facts just screaming for responsible action by key decision makers, ethical leaders don’t search for plausible deniability (a.k.a. covering their butts.)  Leaders require that everyone in their organization (including themselves) adhere to a level of morality. And leaders certainly don’t feel sorry for themselves while people are being victimized by their actions or inactions.

As the head of any organization whether it’s a university, an oil company, or a transportation department, you are personally responsible for the organization’s failures. The decision to not act when necessary, regardless of the excuse, demonstrates a lack of leadership ability. Failure to act to prevent abuses also proves a lack of morality.

Posted on April 11, 2013, in Core Values and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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