Ethics in Leadership: The New York Times Test

Being AccountableResignation.  Anyone following the news out of Penn State for the past several days saw it coming.  The legendary Joe Paterno is stepping down at the end of the season (if not sooner…still TBD) as coach of the Nittany Lions football program.  A leader long esteemed as the voice of integrity, ethical behavior, and decency has had his image and legacy tarnished by a horrendous scandal.

Don’t get me wrong…I don’t feel bad for “Joe Pa.”  He’s made his bed and now he’ll be forced to lie in it.  No, it doesn’t sound like he violated the law in responding to reports of horrendous sexual abuse of a child.  But he certainly violated the trust and integrity to which he purported to hold himself and his program.  In one fell swoop, all credibility was lost.

The coaching I’ve done over the past half decade has often involved addressing ethical dilemmas with leaders.  Oftentimes, clients are facing moral or ethical situations in which they find themselves confused and conflicted over the right course of action to take.  Frequently, our coaching sessions revolve around helping them find the most appropriate actions or reactions to such situations.  For me, it comes down to one fundamental test….the New York Times test.

Substitute whatever national publication you choose (I find the Wall Street Journal works better for more conservative clients than the NYT).  Simply put, I ask clients to envision their decision or action reported on the front page of the newspaper.  Would they be comfortable with their mother, father, wife, or colleague learning about their decision or action as the lead story on the evening news?  Or would they cringe at the very thought?

Think about it.  Most of us are highly receptive to the perceptions of our families and peers.  Like it or not, few individuals remain unaffected by the prospect of their closest acquaintances knowing what they have done (particularly when such a deed is questionable).  We’re creatures with egos, pride, and, dare I say, hubris.

So, when faced with the image of decisions being broadcast for all to view and judge, most leaders instinctively conclude “right” from “wrong.”  They tend to make the right decisions.

My purpose is not to delve into the specifics of the Penn State scandal.  Rather, it is merely to point out that had Joe Pa taken the time over a decade ago to think about the potential public reaction to his lack of apparent oversight and follow-up to his graduate assistant’s story, the scandal could have been quickly and easily used to bolster his image as a leader with integrity.  Instead, a tarnished legacy of hypocritical leadership (accurate or not) is all that remains for Joe Paterno.  What a shame….

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