People are aghast that Joe Paterno, the head coach of Penn State University’s football program, and Graham Spanier, the University’s President, did not stop a football coach, Jerry Sandusky, from abusing young boys in the Penn State gym over the course of 15 years. Their behavior has raised questions about leaders’ ethical conduct and compass.
I suggest that this horrific story also reveals something about the role of organizational mythology in shaping leadership behavior. An organization mythology is a story people inherit and then retell about what makes the organization special and distinctive, what has allowed the organization and its members to be members of an elite. When the mythology is widely held; for example, “Penn state’s football program and prowess is without parallel,” or, “What is good for General motors is good for the country,” as its CEO once said, then people who belong to the institution feel the glow of the myth and are elevated by their membership.
Yet in a classic study, Abraham Zaleznik studied the stress levels of workers and managers in a Canadian organization. To his surprise, he found that the lower down a person was in the hierarchy, the more job stress he or she experienced. This contradicted the common sense notion that executives bear more risk and therefore more stress. Zaleznik suggested that the people at the top of the organization were more likely to find succor and support in the organization’s mythology. Since they were at the top they could feel closer to the institution’s special sauce, and could imagine having a hand in sustaining its magical qualities. The normal stresses of work, as well as the uncertainties associated with the organization’s relationship to its setting, were therefore less troublesome to them. They were part of the mythology.
On the other side, it is people in the trenches who often experience the underside of an organization’s functioning; for example, managers’ carelessness with petty cash, quality problems on the production line that are covered up, a male managers’ predatory behavior toward women, and dishonesty with expenses accounts. People down below often keep the seamy side hidden from people above, because they sense the danger in puncturing the organizational mythology. Why risk attacking the fantasies of the people on top? They may retaliate. Consequently, the executives on the top wind up having a “Potemkin village” view of their own organization.
This framework may shed some light on two of the puzzling features of the Penn State case. Not only did the President and head coach fail to act on information available to them -- Spanier learned of police investigations into the reported abuse as early as 1998 -- but they failed to develop any crisis management plan in response to the scandal’s certain revelation as a result of the grand jury investigation. On the other side, people have been puzzled about a janitor's failure to report his seeing Sandusky having oral sex with a young boy in a gymnasium shower. They have also wondered why a young graduate assistant, upon witnessing Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy, had to first seek his father’s advice before reporting the incident to Paterno (not to mention the police).
Perhaps the concept of organizational mythology is useful here. The mythology is protective for people at the top, while the contradiction between the mythology and facts on the ground make it dangerous for people at the bottom. That is why the leaders ignored the reports of abuse and were so unprepared for the certain crisis, and people in the trenches were frightened by the prospect of reporting what they had seen.
It is probably true that organizational mythologies are harder to sustain today. Competition and market forces humble great companies quickly. Perhaps today, leaders at the top are losing mythology’s protective power. One question is, what is their response? Do they turn to the hard work and the stress of ensuring that the company continues to produce value for stakeholders? Or do they look for escape clauses, like golden parachutes, to reduce their dependence on an organization that can no longer provide myths.