Not long ago, I wrote a post with thoughts about avoiding leadership scandals. In this post, I turn to the thorny question of how to deal with scandal. Stipulate that the scandal is not directly caused by the leader. Instead, suppose that within an organization someone fails. Fails to tell the truth. Fails to respect basic rules of honesty and decency. Fails to appreciate and react to suggestions adequately. Most readers have observed a situation like this. (One recent example that comes to mind is the Google Plus data breach.) Below are some lessons learned both in the abstract and in practice.

  1. Quickly assemble a group to investigate the scandal. Find out as much as is absolutely possible about when and how it happened. Was the situation caused by a systems failure, a personality cult, fear of repercussions, or something else? When did people first know about the failure, and who knew what and when? Encourage the group to ask questions and to speak freely.
  2. Identify, assess, and document decisions that were unethical, practices that enabled failure, and actions you wish to defend. You must be in command of the facts. If you conclude in the course of the investigation that the organization or persons in it are at fault, accept blame as needed.
  3. While the organization must continue to exist, keep in mind that it cannot thrive until you lead through this situation. Live and breathe the scandal until you emerge from it. Rightly or wrongly, lack of engagement with the scandal may be perceived as indifference.
  4. Again, as quickly as possible, plan your response. Use your group to develop a list of audiences. Ensure that your responses are consistent across all audiences. While you may not be able to reveal all details of your investigation, truthfully reveal that you have investigated. Keep your response truthful and extensive, as well as reassuring and forward looking.
  5. As you identify problems, think about solutions. Can you put in place better processes to prevent similar failures in the future? What steps will enable you to develop checks and balances on decision-making or take steps to move the organizational culture to one of transparency, engagement, and openness? Announce and implement plans for future improvement.

Repairing trust after a scandal is almost impossible. The much better strategy, of course, is to avoid scandal altogether. Maintain the highest standards of honesty and decency in everything you do and constantly convey to all that these are the currencies of your organization. Do not look lightly on any sign that these currencies are being degraded.

Leadership and scandal (Part 2)

Sandra J. Peart


Dr. Peart is Dean of the School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She is an economist with special interests in leadership and economics and leadership ethics. More about her: Go to jepson.richmond.edu and see faculty information.


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