Loyalty, forgiveness, a team focus … these are all admirable traits of organizational culture …to a point. When loyalty morphs into blindness, forgiveness becomes rationalization, and the team focus becomes an insular culture, however, disaster is inevitable, and it happens when organizations are driven – and succeed – by a 'Management by Objectives' rather than a 'Management by Means' mentality. It doesn't take too deep a look into the colossal failures at Penn State and the Catholic Church to see this in action … or to see it in action in a much less spectacular fashion in organizations of lesser prominence.
Make no mistake that the 'Win' part of "win with honor' was the over-arching objective at Penn State, and the "with honor" part was more a wish than a principle. As Sports Illustrated's recent article on the Penn State debacle points out, PSU was tied for fourth place among top 25 teams for the number of players with arrest records going into last year. But it is also easy to see all of the good things Paterno did and believe that he really wanted to win with honor.
Likewise, the Catholic Church has long measured itself by its numbers – how many Catholics there were and how many attended mass routinely. Why they were Catholics and what they believed was secondary. The Church hoped they were good Catholics – really wanted them to be – but this was secondary to the bottom line. The 2,000 year history of the Church is littered with examples of compromising principles for the sake of size … and power. That Church leadership believed they were also 'winning with honor' is unquestionable – they were simply blind to the reality that the 'with honor' part was routinely rationalized away in pursuit of winning.
In such a culture leadership finds it easy to protect its own. 'We are Penn State' and we win with honor – and all of those examples where we have not been so honorable are anomalies that people just don't understand – and because we are inherently good and successful we have to protect our good and successful people from outsiders who simply don't understand how good and successful we are and will attempt to destroy us. The bad acts of one of our members should not be allowed to serve as ammunition for outsiders to undermine the greater good we serve. Likewise, the Catholic Church – the Church Jesus himself charged Peter to build – believed within its insular leadership that it served such a greater good that the horrible misdeeds by a few priests, although bad, cannot be allowed to derail their success.
Fortunately, in most organizations the bad acts of one of its leaders do not rise to the despicable level of Penn State and the Church, but the same dynamic is at play far too often. In one company (whose bottom line was very good) I advised it was plain to all – except the senior executives – that one of its executives was abusive and divisive, wreaking havoc on organization, demotivating and driving away some of their very best people. The CEO told me that (1) I was wrong and simply didn't understand the contribution the exec was making, (2) the sources of my information were lying to me, and (3) it was beyond my charter so I should keep my nose out of it. Within three months, two key operations mangers had quit and their biggest customer dropped them, directly attributing their decisions to the exec in question. Why the blind support of a destructive person whose mean nature was so easy for anyone outside the leadership team to see?
While this is far from the norm, it is not that unusual either. I am intimately familiar with another company – a very profitable one – that protected, rationalized and ultimately paid a severe price for blind support of an exec who was stealing from the company – a fact patently obvious to virtually every employee outside of the senior leadership ranks.
The common thread is a rationalization of the end justifying the means – common enough among us individually but especially destructive when it creeps into the leadership culture and too common when the end results appear to be good. Management by Means – focusing on how things get done and how people lead – provides the right focus, assures that the 'with honor' goal supersedes the 'win' goal, and most often results in winning. At the very least, it assures that organizational problems are resolved by organizations instead of grand juries.
(By way of full disclosure, I am both a life-long practicing Catholic and a huge Big Ten football fan. The failings of both the Church and Penn State have not been easy to observe)