I recently completed a thorough reading of Judge Louis Freeh's report on the conduct of Penn State University officials regarding child abuse by Jerry Sandusky, now widely known as the Freeh report.
Whether you like the conclusions drawn in the report or not, there are lessons to be learned by leaders of all types of organizations.
The first lesson is to maintain a healthy skepticism about second- and third-hand sources, particularly sources that have an axe to grind. As a Penn State alumnus with many alumni friends and acquaintances, I constantly receive emails about the Freeh report that reference other emails, websites and blogs that lampoon it. I decided it was time for me to go to the primary source, so I read the report — all 267 pages.
I now believe the writers of many of the blogs, websites and emails purporting to provide thoughtful analysis of the report are incorrect, misinformed or, in some cases, living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. A simple example is the assertion by some that the trail of emails among university President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley are somehow cherry-picked and presented out of order. I've read all of them. The most damning are in a contiguous thread, not cherry-picked and not out of order.
The Internet gives a bully pulpit to everyone. A wealth of information on almost any subject is instantly available. Unfortunately, many bloggers and self-appointed analysts rely on misinformed or biased secondary sources to write their even more misinformed tertiary screeds. Knowing which sources to trust is becoming more and more difficult.
The good news is that, like the Freeh report, many original documents are readily available. Before the Internet, there is little chance I would have had access to a 267-page report. I would have gotten all my information on the report from others. Today, with minimal effort on my part, I have the complete, unfiltered original.
When in doubt, go to the primary source. There is no excuse for not having the facts right.
The second lesson is the power of sweeping generalizations and ill-chosen words to cause collateral damage. The Freeh report says, "One of the most challenging tasks confronting the Penn State community is transforming the culture that permitted Sandusky's behavior. …" The use of the nonspecific word "culture" has been transformed by the national media, another increasingly suspect source of information, to be an indictment of everyone and everything associated with Penn State.
In fact, Penn State, like many large organizations, has many cultures, most of whose members had nothing to do with the Sandusky affair and have been as horrified as anyone that it could have happened.
The students don't need to transform their culture because of this affair. These are young people from all over the country and all over the world. They are not football-obsessed automatons. Yes, some of them are capable of doing stupid things, as happened when some students got out of hand the night Joe Paterno was fired.
Most are smart and surprisingly mature and engaged in their world.
Every year, more than 15,000 students organize, plan and run THON, the student fundraiser for pediatric cancer. They raised more than $10 million in 2011-12. The mantra of THON is, "For the kids."
Thousands of other students volunteer in their communities. Many participate in organizations such as Engineers Without Borders and Teach for America. These students would never turn a blind eye to abuse of children.
There are other cultures whose members had no part in the Sandusky affair. The world-class faculty has a culture. Protecting the football program from bad publicity is the last thing on the minds of faculty members. Staff members of the university and its alumni association are good people who have been devastated by Sandusky's actions.
The Freeh report was right about one culture needing transformation. It is the leadership culture embodied by the operating leaders of the university — Spanier, Schultz, Curley and perhaps Paterno — enabled by a complacent board of trustees. It offers the most important lesson.
The operating leadership culture was not open and transparent. Outside opinions and debate were not sought or welcomed. It was inbred and inward looking. It lacked expertise in the issues raised by Sandusky.
What is the lesson? When confronted by the extraordinary, good leaders fill a room with expertise, diversity, many voices in debate. How differently this might have played out had experts in human resources, criminal justice, child abuse and risk management been brought together.
What if the trustees had been fully briefed and engaged? Or had asked more questions? What if a woman had been in the room?
The Freeh report doesn't prove a conspiracy to avoid publicity. It depicts insular leaders, in over their heads, dealing with complex problems with blinders on and failing everyone.