Last week news broke that 15 year-old Phoebe Prince killed herself after months of harassment and bullying by her classmates at a South Hadley, MA high school. School administrators initially denied knowing anything about it, even though Prince’s mother had complained to school officials, and a renowned bullying expert had been called in to consult on the problem (Coloroso reported that the school had not fully implemented her recommendations: http://thecrimereport.org/2010/04/02/ma-school-where-student-died-hadnt-carried-out-anti-bullying-plan/).
And over the Easter weekend, while many senior Catholics across Europe apologized in their Easter addresses for the ongoing sexual abuse of children by clergy, a senior cardinal defended Pope Benedict XVI from what he called petty gossip and a vile smear operation by the anti-Vatican media. On Good Friday the Pope’s personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, compared the criticism of the Catholic Church over child abuse to the collective violence suffered by the Jews.
Both incidents concern sad and horrific incidents of abuse, bullying, and harassment. And both incidents are examples of leaders failing to act. Not once, but twice. The first failure was the failure to take action, even when confronted with facts. Instead leaders excused, covered up, re-assigned perpetrators, or simply did nothing. The second failure happened when the news broke. Leaders denied knowledge of the incidents, or in the case of the Vatican, went after the accusers, and attacked the messenger.
Bad news is unavoidable. And in the era of social media, there is no hiding from it.Â Everything becomes public quickly, and when those responsible don’t step forward, the chorus of voices grows louder. What was a terrible incident grows quickly into scandal. Nothing defines a leader more than how he or she handles scandal. The best defense is preventative: anticipate it, be prepared, assume it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. It’s easy to look at the Church, or South Hadley High School, or a big corporation like Nestle (whose Facebook wall was attacked by protestors) and think, it won’t happen to me. Not in my little company, department, school, agency. But it’s a matter of scale. We may not see ourselves in these instances, but the dynamics of what happens and how to handle it are the same, whether we run a small agency or business, or a big one. So here are my thoughts on handling bad news that goes public.
A scandal is a public conversation. What is often lost in the drama of the scandal is that a scandal is a public conversation. It’s the public learning about a topic that people need to, want to learn more about: sex, relationships, bullying, abuse of power, violence, etc. The life of a scandal is related to the public’s desire to learn about the issue. And as such, it’s a wider social phenomenon that goes way beyond the role your company or organization played. This is why trying to divert attention, or hide until it dies down rarely works.
Leaders have to know how to learn in public. Yet being caught unaware, making a mistake in public, being seen as inept, in front of the class without the answer, this is one of the things that often make leaders react poorly. But there’s an opportunity here to lead the conversation. It’s important for leaders to talk about their learning, what they are doing to learn, grow and change. And even more, get the public talking, too. Everyone has or suffers from this problem, in some way. You can’t have a problem that the world is not having. So why not talk to the world about it? Become a leader in solving the problem.
Ask yourself what you might be ignoring. In most scandals, there was a warning. A memo was written. Parents complained. Someone blew the whistle. And it was ignored. This could be criminal neglect, a willful disregard or pattern of deception for sheer profit. And it sometimes is. In many scandals, there is a deliberate criminal intent to cover up. But ignoring signals can also be a factor. It’s human nature to interpret data to suit the beliefs we already hold. We minimize evidence, question its source, tell ourselves it’ll get better. It’s not just that the school officials didn’t know how to deal with bullying; it’s that they failed to notice and properly evaluate the evidence. What they did see, they interpreted to maintain their belief that it wasn’t that serious, kids will be kids. Our brains are incredible spin doctors. So as leaders, we need to ask ourselves, on a regular basis, what information am I choosing to ignore? What troubling information has been brought to my attention that I don’t want to think about? Or have minimized and overridden? Where am I hoping things will get better on their own?
Scandals are critical for learning and growing. They can be a wake-up call, an opportunity to discover who we are at the edge of what we know. And to do that in public is not for the faint of heart.