Leadership, Friendship and the Obligations of Others

November 9, 2011

The airwaves and the blogosphere are filled with allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Herman Cain and Jerry Sandusky: two men; one black, one white; one a politician, one a coach.  Much of the discussion in the Sandusky case concerns what others at Penn State University should have done a decade and more ago as they first came to learn of the allegations: Joe Paterno (the head coach), Tim Curley (athletic director), Graham Spanier (president) and others.  With Cain, we are hearing relatively little from or about others — what they did when they first came to know about the incidents allegedly involving him.

These two cases have set me to thinking about the obligations of leadership and friendship.  What should leaders do when they learn of an allegation of misconduct?  What should friends do when they learn of allegations against someone they’ve known for many years?  And for that matter, what should others do, those who are neither friends or leaders — what are their obligations?  And what should we call those others?  To call them bystanders relieves them of any responsibility.  To call them citizens or colleagues acknowledges that they do have responsibilities.

My thinking about these matters is shaped by my having been in a position of leadership at an institution of higher education a number of years ago when allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of a male faculty member came to my attention.  As I pursued that case as I knew I must, his friends rallied strongly to support him and to thwart any effort to dismiss or even discipline him; and others largely sat on the sidelines and on their hands, doing very little.  In the face of the vigorous support of the friends, the inaction of others — professional colleagues — made pursuit of the case more difficult.  Pursue it we did, and the man was dismissed, but it took a toll on those of us in leadership positions.

Recollecting that toll occasions some discomfort as I listen to commentators say (glibly it seems) that those in leadership at Penn State should have “done much more.”  Of course they should have; I believe those in positions of leadership have far-reaching obligations to prevent harm.  But those glib statements seem to reflect no awareness that had those leaders “done more” they might have faced significant opposition from the friends and supporters of the accused.  Let’s insist that leaders do all that they can.  Let’s insist that leaders have far-reaching obligations to assure the welfare and safety of others.  But let’s also acknowledge that this can be a very heavy burden to bear.

Why a burden?  For reasons the Cain and Sandusky matters obscure.  Often allegations of misconduct arise in an organization as personnel matters.  Organizations have important obligations not to disclose details of individual cases — largely for the protection of individuals.  Who has an alcoholism problem?  Who has depression or anxiety issues? Who has been accused of misconduct in the past?  Those in leadership may know, but they have an obligation not to discuss such matters in public.  An individual facing a misconduct charge, however, has no such obligation to remain silent; he can forcefully claim his innocence, and decry persecution by those in leadership.  And friends of the accused can loudly voice their support and broadcast their understanding of “the facts.”  In the Sandusky case, there is now a public grand jury presentment.  The charges have been widely disseminated, and no one is rallying to his defense.  In the Cain case, the specifics of the allegations are dribbling out.

In the difficult case I pursued years ago, I first heard a student tell me her story in my office, and she told me the names of others students with similar incidents.  She had reported her complaint earlier to the institution, but nothing had been done.  Eventually we identified seven students with similar incidents, and we took legal depositions from each.  Those depositions were never made public, however, and should not have been.  But that meant the public discussion was largely shaped by what the accused and his friends insisted (inaccurately) were the facts.

If the obligations of leaders are clear enough but more burdensome than is being acknowledged, what are the obligations of friends when someone they know well is accused of misconduct?  Friends should comfort and support one another: that is in the very nature of friendship.  We should stand by our friends in hard times.  But second, I believe we need to recognize that even in the closest of friendships we do not know everything that we might know about another.  In every case of sexual misconduct I’ve ever dealt with (and I have had to deal with many) close friends have been surprised, even shocked, as they learn more.  They come to feel betrayed when they realize — if they do — that their friend’s denials were lies.  Someone may be an admirable friend in many, many regards.  But there may be another side to them we never see.  Even in friendship we need to have some sense that there is more to another person than we can ever know.  Having such restraint is a hard obligation of friendship.

And so third, I think it is incumbent on friends, even as they lend support and comfort, to allow legitimate investigations to go forward.  They can insist on fairness, but they ought to allow a full understanding of the case to be developed before they trumpet their certainty that the charges are baseless.

Finally, what are the obligations of others — those who are neither leaders of an institution or friends of the accused?  If they are members of a professional community, or citizens of the same polity, they have positive obligations.  Sitting on the sidelines isn’t right.  Being a gawker isn’t right.  Colleagues and citizens (they aren’t bystanders!) have an obligation to positively support efforts to get to the bottom of allegations of misconduct.  And they also have an obligation to support information being held in confidence by an institution — even when everyone would love to know all the facts.

We take care in colleges and universities to craft explicit processes for dealing with misconduct or personnel matters.  When the going gets tough, when leaders are doing their job and friends of the accused are pushing back, colleagues and citizens need to insist — for the integrity of the institution — that those carefully crafted policies be fully utilized.  And when the going gets tough, colleagues and citizens need to trust their leaders; they need to give their leaders affirmative support, even when all the facts can’t be publicly known.

Such trust can be difficult to give.  We are more likely to trust friendship than leadership in difficult cases.  But that’s one thing that makes leadership difficult, and that’s why sometimes we see leaders failing to do the right thing.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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