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What the Baylor University Scandal Means to You: 3 Leadership Lessons

It’s easy to look at the scandal that engulfed Baylor University and focus on the problems.

Problems with how women are treated on college campuses. Problems with the powerful influence of winning sports programs. Problems with our justice system. Problems with the Baylor University leadership.

Problems. Problems. Problems. And they’re all very real and worth examining.

Rather than pointing fingers and casting blame, however, leaders across the world (not just America) should see what’s happened at Baylor as a great big opportunity to look inward and then ask the most compelling question of all: How should we lead differently?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years reading about the academic scandal at the University of North Carolina. And I sit on the board of Penn State (my alma mater), so I know all about the sex scandal that rocked the Nittany Lion Nation. Now it’s nearly impossible to miss the coverage of how poorly Baylor routinely handled sexual assault allegations on its campus.

There are tactical things institutions must do to prevent such problems, but leaders can’t stop with new tactics. In fact, tactics aren’t even the starting place.

No matter what type of organization you lead – and no matter what level you are in the leadership ranks – you have a responsibility to build a culture that protects the people who are in it. How? Well, it’s not easy and it can’t be done overnight, but here are three simple, foundational ideas that every leader should implement and emphasize, or else new policies and procedures will have very little impact:

Look up from the bottom line

Every organization on the planet has some obligation to self-sustainability, which in most cases means earning a profit. In the case of Baylor athletics, it involved wins and losses. There’s a performance responsibility that comes with leadership. But if that’s your only driving force as a leader, you’re missing the bigger point of what it means to be a human being on this planet. Look around. You work with and lead people. Your work impacts the lives of people. Real people with real lives. Get to know them – what makes them happy, what makes them sad, what brings them joy, what brings them sorrow. That’s how you build empathy that shapes your leadership – and your culture.

Embrace the reality

One of the biggest mistakes we make as leaders is to look at a tragedy like what’s happened at Baylor and focus only on Baylor. We see it as “their” problem. But we’re not immune. Moral failure, ethical lapses, poor judgement … any of it can happen to any of us.

People are not perfect, therefore they make mistakes. Even good and well-intentioned people find themselves on the slippery slope that leads to a slimy pit of destruction. You aren’t immune. Your team isn’t immune. Your organization isn’t immune.

Be transparent

Most scandals become scandals because they weren’t dealt with early on with a spirit of transparency. When something goes awry, don’t hide from it. Too often, leaders see mistakes (personal or organizational) and immediately get defensive. They look for ways to hide their faults or color the truth. The problem doesn’t get addressed, so it only gets worse. And the culture mimics the leader.

The most important thing you can do is be transparent through the process. A culture that’s committed to self-awareness and self-correction operates with nothing to hide and turns the inevitable mistakes into opportunities to build something better and stronger.

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