Moral dilemmas occur everyday across sports, education, government and business. Because sports are entertainment, they generate much more attention than other disciplines.
This is certainly the case in the tragic story of Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno. There are few bigger names than Penn State football and Joe Paterno, now formerly the winningest coach in the game's history after sanctions vacated 111 wins from his record (via Washington Post).
It's troublesome when individuals and institutions fail to protect the most vulnerable members of our society—children—while presenting themselves as being righteous. The most recent high profile example just happens to be an acclaimed college football program with the motto: "We are Penn State."
The problem lies when organizational leaders willingly hide ethical lapses in an effort to maintain the reputation of the brand. A grave breach in trust occurs.
Penn State is not alone in college sports. Gary Barnett, a former Big 12 Coach of the Year at Colorado, departed amid allegations of using drugs, alcohol and sex to attract recruits, and making disparaging remarks about Katie Hnida, a female kicker who said she was raped by a teammate.
In 2011, after it became apparent that a number of Ohio State players traded team memorabilia and equipment for tattoos, merchandise and services, head coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign for withholding information from university officials and lying about his knowledge of the violations.
Leaders must focus on their moral commitment to their constituents. At times, judgment is misguided in order to conceal the event that is being covered up. This relates not only to sports, but in all institutions: Wall St. firms, government and the Catholic Church, among others.
Incidents that break moral vows to key constituents are why leaders are hired to make the right decision at a difficult time.
Cardinal Bernard Law was a popular archbishop of the Catholic Church in Boston until allegations of sexual misconduct by priests in the archdiocese became widespread. Law's lack of swift, decisive action in response to the reports of sexual misconduct devastated his followers in Boston and exploded into a national story.
He subsequently became the first high-level Church official to be accused of covering up child molestation by priests. In his efforts to protect the institution from scrutiny, Law did much more harm than good, as news coverage emboldened other victims to come forward with their stories of abuse.
The scandal ultimately resulted in lawsuits, criminal cases and international damage to the Catholic Church as an institution.
An effective leader has to be focused on the values of their organization. It is better to let bad news come out than to become involved in cover-up attempts. After all, the Watergate cover-up was more damaging than the small-time burglary that spawned it, and Martha Stewart was jailed not for insider trading but for conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Elliot Spitzer made a name for himself in the Manhattan District Attorney's office by pursuing organized crime and ending the Gambino family's control over New York's garment and trucking industries. As New York State Attorney General, he became known for prosecuting cases of white collar crime and securities and internet fraud.
He used his reputation as a corruption-fighter to win election as New York Governor in 2007. Less than halfway through his term, Spitzer was discovered to be a client of a high-end call girl service. The media and his political rivals lined up against him and sought his resignation in disgrace.
Former Congressman Anthony Weiner, forced out of office after repeatedly lying about nude photos he sent via Twitter to a woman half his age, is said to be contemplating a political comeback.
Meanwhile, the original "Comeback Kid," Bill Clinton, lied about his extra-marital affair with Monica Lewinsky which led to impeachment proceedings based on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. His Presidential legacy, unfortunately, will always include this scandal.
When a sports, business, government or religious leader has presented himself as ethically superior, opponents become particularly vindictive when ethical lapses are exposed. Leaders have to make a risk/reward decision on covering up moral improprieties in an effort to protect the brand—whether it is a football program, an elected office or a church.
We expect our leaders to present a moral judgment that reinforces why they are our leaders. After all, they are the role models whom many aspire to become. We put our trust in them; when these leaders fail to execute, a chain reaction is triggered with horrible consequences.
Mike Krzyzewski, the coach of USA Basketball has served our country as a cadet, officer and represents the ideals of the Olympics. He has sacrificed and driven All-Star players to perform at a high level. This is what we look for from our leaders.
Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. Among his high profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines. Earlier in his career, Mr. Hughes coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA). Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.