NORTHFIELD, Minn., July 17, 2012 — As details are revealed about the cover up of child molestation at Penn State, I am taken back to 1994 when I spent two days at the Nittany Lion Inn on campus teaching “Enhancing Ethical Leadership.”
Anger mixes with my sadness as I recall that lively and informative session. And the laughs we shared at the quip “rot at the top.”
However, moral failure is not funny business, not at all. While our first thoughts are rightly with the victims, and our second ones with the perpetrators, our third thoughts can be about the lessons learned lest they be repeated.
At Penn State in our ethics session, we talked about Watergate and Chernobyl. What was the role and responsibility of leadership? What were the moral failures of those situations? Why?
Watergate and Politics of Cooperation
Watergate was a political scandal that occurred in the United States in the 1970s as a result of the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. The Nixon administration attempted to cover-up its involvement, eventually leading to the resignation of Richard Nixon, then President of the United States. Nixon’s beingthe only resignation of a U.S. President.
The scandal also resulted in the indictment, trial, conviction and incarceration of 43 people, including dozens of top Nixon administration officials.
Barry Sussman, former city editor of the Washington Post wrote in his book “The Great Cover Up: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate”:
“The overwhelming number of Congressmen had consistently turned their backs on Watergate until it surrounded them. They were still reluctant to deal with it, hoping Nixon would solve what was becoming their dilemma.”
Reviewer, William Hershey of the Dayton Daily News headlined his article “Nixon Not Only One to Blame? Politics of Cooperation”:
“But, he subtly tells us, we all share the blame for letting Nixon hoodwink us. We elected the senators and representatives who let Nixon use what Sussman calls the ‘politics of cooperation.’”
Nixon portrayed Congress as his enemy, but Sussman makes it perfectly clear that he played its members like the strings on a fine guitar. Congress had plenty of opportunities to get tough and get the truth before the Senator Sam Ervin hearings but chose not to.
The Senators and Representatives instead remembered the cardinal rule of the politics of cooperation: you do a favor for me and I’ll do a favor for you.”
Paul Riling asked the practical question: “Why did it take Congress, the national press, and the people so long to realize the serious nature of the Watergate scandal?”
He also raised a profound “what if?” question. And, rather than demonstrating that the system is bound to work, the Watergate experience shows us how possible it would have been for the President and his men to get away with a successful cover-up. It was a very near thing. (Source: Watergate Info, Paul Riling, 1974).
Chernobyl Disaster and Uncertainly Avoidance
Chernobyl was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, then under the direct jurisdiction of the central authorities of the Soviet Union. According to Wikipedia, an explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, which spread over much of Western USSR and Europe.
It is widely considered to have been the worst nuclear power plant accident in history and is one of only two classified as a Level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the other being the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011). The battle to contain the contamination and avert a greater catastrophe ultimately involved over 500,000 workers and cost an estimated 18 billion rubles, crippling the Soviet economy.
“Concerning the ethical issues, the duty of every engineer involved in experimenting with nuclear power reactor is to assure safe operation. Engineers in Chernobyl however believed that they had enough experience and knowledge about the reactor so that they can perform their experiment in a safe way. Unfortunately enough their judgment was wrong.
They neglected their duty to place public safety and the well being of people within the area as highest priority.” (Source: Group 5 – Engineering Ethics Blog, 2008).
Another dimension to the case was posited by Ethics in the News, University of Oxford: “When bureaucrats and authorities kept information from people at Chernobyl, it led to many people coming to harm. Few if any of them were held accountable for it – largely because they were acting according to the proper procedures of an uncertainty avoidant system aiming at top-down control over information flows. Better to do nothing – even when it causes harm – but follow the rules than take a risk to one’s position.”
Now a new case study in moral failure has been created, Penn State. In our offices and classrooms we can discuss Penn State’s moral failure thanks to Lou Freeh’s investigative report.
No doubt about it - the two day guest workshop I taught at Penn State was a minor occasion meriting barely a blip on the University calendar. However, the two cases of moral failure we discussed there have eerily similar themes to the Penn State incident.
Rot at the top, politics of cooperation, and uncertainly avoidance are not just words to be spoken about in jest. They are perils not to be repeated.
Please Comment: What are your lessons learned about moral failure from the Penn State story?
Read more from Donna Rae Scheffert at Washington Times Communities and Online Leadership Tools.
Donna Rae is an award winning writer, consultant, planner, facilitator, and coach. One Minnesota organization gave her a coveted ‘Futures’ award. Another named her the 2002 Outstanding Faculty member. She has co-authored five books and numerous articles. She is the founder of the consulting firm Leadership Tools.
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