Penn Sate, and Libor, and… – What does Your Organization Truly Value?

By definition, every organization is “values driven.” The only question is, what values are in the driver’s seat?
Gary Hamel, What Matters Now


Let’s think about what organizations value.  We’d best start with this:  what does your organization value?  Make sure you know the answer to that question.  Everything depends on it.

And, there’s a pretty good chance that what your organization says they value may not be what they really value.

Here’s the story.

At Penn State, an assistant coach raped a boy – a young boy.
So far, you can only blame this assistant coach.  It is sad; tragic.  But only one person is at fault; only one person is to be blamed.
But then, somebody found about it, and told someone else.  A handful of people learned about this.
They did not take the logical, appropriate, human, humane action.
Now, it is the fault of a very flawed system – a genuine, massive failure of organizational values; and the fault of a group of people, not one person.
The coach then raped other boys.  After someone told somebody else about it.

And now, even after the former director of the FBI issued his report, there are many who say, “no – I don’t believe the findings of the report.  And, the punishment is unfair, too harsh.  We didn’t do enough wrong to warrant that punishment.”

Because, we are in a national, maybe international, state of denial.  “Things are not that bad.  There are only the stories of an occasional bad apple here and there.”

Don’t kid yourself.  There are too many stories of these bad apples, in too many organizations, to consider these isolated incidences anymore.

And in each case, it boils down to this:

This is what we value here:  _________.  And we value this more than anything else.  Nothing else matters as much as this thing that we supremely value.  So, if some kind of wrongdoing is done that might threaten our success fulfilling this thing that we supremely value, we will ignore it, hide it, be intentionally blind to it, because what we value is far more important than this bad thing that was done by some bad apple.

At Penn State, it is hard to know what to put in that “this is what we value” blank.  Did Penn State value football supremely?  Thus, they placed Joe Paterno on a gigantic, pedestal, because he delivered the football product they supremely valued?  Did Penn State value the prestige, and the money, that such a football program brought to their school?  If so, then it was “right” to put a picture of Coach Paterno on campus with a halo over his head, and a statue that so many made a pilgrimage to to show honor to the great  man who represented, who successfully “fulfilled,” their supreme value.

Here, take a look at this picture – the one with the halo.  Think about what it means.  It is, in fact, exactly the picture that should be prominent on this campus.  He represented success in what this school supremely valued.  (Yes, I know that the artist placed the the halo over his head after his death, and pretty quickly painted over the halo as the scandal became so public..  But, I’m describing a “values-honoring symbolism,” as personified in this so very great man to this university – thus, the halo was an appropriate symbol of this man, at this university, with these values).

with halo; then halo painted over

a look at the larger painting

I think they should have left the picture with the halo up, and left the statue up.  Because, in listening to the rants and rage of the people objecting to the NCAA punishment, they still place their supreme value in the same place.  “We did not deserve this punishment” is the cry.  But, in fact, they did.  Because they had all placed their supreme value in the wrong place.  And the punishment is not just for what Sandusky did, and others covered up – it is an indictment of a system with such misplaced values.

And, of course, for the NCAA to punish such “values” just drips with irony.  The NCAA is filled with schools that place this sport pretty close to the “supreme value” level.  And many of these schools make decisions that are not quite good for all so that their prestige and their profits and their reputation about their great football program can be protected.

At Penn State, something mattered more, something was valued more, than the safety of young boys.  It was “okay” to turn one’s back to an assistant coach raping additional boys, because they did not value the safety of those boys as much as they valued something else.

You cannot value two things supremely.  There is room for only one top value in the value hierarchy.

{Of course, I find this despicable.  Why should football and prestige ever have that supreme value slot in an institution of higher learning?  And, I think the actions of Paterno, and others, deserve absolute condemnation.  But, this blog post is an attempt to ask, “what did Penn State supremely value?”  And, then, “what does my, and your, organization supremely value?”}

The Libor scandal is the same story.  (And Enron, and BP, and….).  Yes, I agree that the rape of young boys is far more despicable than overcharging for credit. But there is a parallel — what do these banks value?  You know, the ones which set the interest rates to their advantage – actually, on some days, to the advantage of a small group of “buddies” who asked their buddies to set the rates to maximize their own bonuses.  Whatever they do value, they did not value the best interest of their end customers – the people who had to make the mortgage payments.  They put their own interest above the interest of the people they “served.”

And, they got away with it as long as they could.

As did News Corp with their phone hacking.

As did Penn State with their cover-up – even if it meant that additonal young boys were going to be raped.

As did…

No, the problem is not Penn State, or Libor, or Enron, or…  The crisis is not a few bad apples.  The crisis is deeper that that.  It is a values crisis.  It is a “what we supremely value trumps any other concerns” crisis.

And, I think every customer on the planet should start asking of every store and organization and university “what do you supremely value here in this organization?’’  And then we need to demand honest answers.

Remember Gary Hamel’s clear statement of fact, and warning:

By definition, every organization is “values driven.” The only question is, what values are in the driver’s seat?

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