Those of us not directly involved with the incidents surrounding Penn State this week will never truly know what happened. We won’t know who all knew what. We won’t know who told who what and when. We won’t know who really was a coward and who really was a hero. All of that occurred in closed offices, private meetings and in the world that Jerry Sandusky created in order to carry on his horrible, detestable acts.
But like during the filming of a movie, and the director says “Cut”, the house lights are now on. From here on we’ll be able to clearly see who the actors are and how they behave without the benefit of shadowy props to hide behind. Brings a little real reality to the world of contrived reality that our culture seems to have devolved into.
The first scene under those bright house lights played out when the Penn State Board of Trustees announced the dismissals of the University President and the beloved head football coach. The explanation I’ve heard most observers give for why Penn State fired them was that they “had to”. They “had to” fire them to protect their program. They “had to” fire them to show they were cleaning house. They “had to” fire them for legal reasons. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. I’ve come to the conclusion that I think it is all too familiar. What I’d like to hear more from boards of trustees, from boards of directors at for- and non-profit companies and, Heaven knows, from the halls of government is “What we should do…”
I may be making to much of semantics. I do it all the time. But for me, the phrase “We had to do…” carries with it an implied pronouncement of guilt. It says to me that “At one time we knew the right thing to do, but we didn’t do it. So now we feel as though we have to do this other thing because we screwed up so badly before.” There is an admission of guilt cleverly hidden inside the phrasing. “We had to do…” is really saying “We are only doing this now because we need to look like we are taking some action.” It is often followed by phrases like, “in the best interest of…” and “we regret any offense you may have taken as a result…” As if it is your fault somehow, but certainly not ours.
The system we’ve contrived for protecting financial assets are to blame for “we had to…” It turns out that lawyers and media outlets are the things lurking in the shadows of those movie sets. Lawyers and media stand to gain when our organizations and leaders use the phrase “we had to…” Big and small institutions have had to develop complicated employee manuals that require specific steps be taken (and specific language be used) in times of crisis. Most of the rules lead back to the lawyers, of course. And to long processes which, usually to avoid the media, lead back into the shadows. And private offices. And settlement agreements with aggrieved victims, worded as carefully as the public statements that are later made which usually begin with “We regret that we had to…”
What we’re missing too often is the phrase “should do”. In the case of Penn State, it might have been used in this manner in 1998, when the actions of this cretin Sandusky first came to light: “We should fire his ass right this instant and tell everyone within shouting distance what a despicable miscreant he is.” I mean where are we, as a civilization in a long history of civilizations, when we do not have a reward structure in place to use the phrase “should do”. Unfortunately, I’m guessing we are right where all civilizations have stood when they have a lot to lose. More defensive than offensive. More hunkered down than opened up. More willing to work in the contrived lighting of a controlled scene than to use a moral compass to point us into the house lighted theater of what we should do.
As I said, those of us outside the room will never know what really happened and who knew what when in the case of Penn State. What I do know is that Penn State had something to lose in 1998 by using the phrase “What we should do is…” and instead of taking the high ground of “should do” they allowed unknown amounts of pain and suffering, and now they’re left to the consequences, and the shadows, of “have to”.