One of the big stories dominating the media lately has been the sexual abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach at Penn State, ultimately culminating in the stunning firing of Joe Paterno, the university’s beloved head football coach, along with Graham Spanier, one of Penn State’s longest serving presidents. At issue was the university’s apparent failure to act to preventing further harm from the assistant, who has been charged with abusing eight boys (and more are surfacing) over a 15-year span. Paterno announced that he was going to retire after this season, but the university board of trustees decided that wasn’t good enough, dismissing him before what would have been his last home game in front of 100,000 fans.
The firing set off a heated public debate over how much Paterno was to blame, what he and others should have done, and whether his dismissal was an appropriate action—or just an expedient damage-control effort by university trustees. So fierce was the firestorm of reaction that it pushed (at least for the moment) another hot story off the top-tier of daily headlines—the multiple accusations of past sexual harassment against Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain when he was head of the National Restaurant Association.
Meanwhile, much below the decibel level of these stories, I noticed the story of another high-level, but much less-publicized firing: that of Michael Woodford, the president of the Japanese camera-maker, Olympus. Here the scandal was not about sex, but about (what else?) money. Woodford had questioned the company’s irregular financial payments in several acquisition deals that seemed designed to hide losses on securities dating back to the 1990s. When Woodford called for an investigation he was fired, the company explained, because of his “inability to understand Japanese culture.” (He spent 30 years with the firm.) The company has since confessed to the irregularities and while Woodford has called on the entire corporate board to resign, no action has been taken by Japanese authorities.
Paterno, Cain, Olympus.
What do these three stories have in common?
In all three instances, emotions are strong and the stakes are high. Opinions may vary sharply on the right course of action, but there is something deeper that connects these cases. They all involved whistleblowers, who were needed to bring out critical issues that were not brought to light within their organizations. All kinds of conversations should be taking place in the workplace today, but they are not going on. Not only discussions about sexual abuse or financial misconduct, but a wide range of concerns relating to corporate practices and treatment of employees or customers. At a time when companies need fresh ideas, innovation, a shared sense of purpose and meaning, people are staying quiet. They are not willing to take the personal and professional risks or to deal with the consequences.
These are subjects that I call “Courageous Conversations.” These are the conversations we need to have about uncomfortable—even risky—issues, in order to bring them into the light. If all we care about is being people-pleasers, going with the flow, being safe, then these kinds of bad behaviors or poor business decisions will go on; they will not go away. But it is not easy to confront. If you have the audacity to ask Cain about his ability to be a CEO, given the allegations against him, you may get booed by those around you.
Leaders, whether in the private workplace or the public arena, are people who stand up for what’s right, even when it’s not in their interest. This is the kind of “American Exceptionalism” that we must claim in our companies. We are exceptional in that we’re founded on a set of higher values—knowing that there would be times we would be tested, and that we would have to answer the questions: Are we going to stand up and live by these values? Are we prepared to be who we say we are?
So how do we put these Courageous Conversations into our corporate life? Well, if you’re interested in creating an environment where such Courageous Conversations can occur in your organization, scroll down to the link below and let’s talk. We can help you craft a compelling message to your organization that not only captures people’s attention, but transforms their behavior.
Courageous Conversations is a Trademark of Ellen Cooperperson’s Corporate Performance Consultants.