Leadership: Roles and Responsibilities

November 10, 2011

The hard questions in the Penn State pedophilia mess involve why some people in positions of leadership didn’t do more than they did when they first came to learn something about Jerry Sandusky’s behavior.

Of course there is a great deal we do not know about who knew what and when, and a great deal we don’t know about what steps those individuals took.  As the investigation unfolds, we are likely to learn more.  But for the moment, let’s take these reported facts as truthful: that in 2002 Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant, told Paterno had seen something troubling (no specifics given) involving Jerry Sandusky (an assistant coach), that McQueary had done nothing more, that Paterno had told Tim Curley (the athletic director) of this conversation but had done nothing more.

In doing what they each did, McQueary and Paterno each fulfilled the responsibilities of his role.  Each told his superior in the organization what he knew.  It is possible that because each took this step, each will avoid criminal prosecution, even while everywhere in the media and on the internet can be found arguments that they didn’t do enough.

I’m with those with think each should have done more, but I also don’t want to pass too quickly over the idea that in work settings you should fulfill the responsibilities of your role and be cautious about stepping too far beyond your role.

When I started at Earlham College as president, Steve Butler, a marvelous sociologist on the faculty, gave me a useful insight into Earlham.  He told me that I needed to understand that the Earlham community was as little given to thinking in terms of roles and their associated responsibilities as any organization I had ever seen or would see.  Earlham likes to think in terms of people, and not confine people to their assigned roles in the organization.

There’s something appealing about thinking in terms of people, not roles.  Each of us is more, much more, than any role we might come to play in an organization.  At the same time, I want to say a word in praise of thinking in terms of roles and relationships.  During my years as Earlham’s president, I put a good deal of effort into encouraging people to think in terms of roles and their attendant relationships.

It’s become common — and also a good idea — to have explicit position descriptions for every position in an organization.  Such position descriptions are written independent of the person who fills the position:  they specify the role that a person is to play.  Such a position description does at least three positive things.  (a) It states the central thrust or initiative of a person’s work: it tells the person filling the position where their energies should be focused day in and day out.  (b) It describes how the position relates to other positions to make things happen.  It helps people see how their work should mesh with other people’s work.  And (c) it states how one participates in decision-making.  For  example, a position description will identify a person’s supervisor, the person (in a role) who will oversee and evaluate their work.  Position descriptions provide the basis for carrying through regular evaluations of people’s work.

If people don’t think in terms of roles, their daily efforts can drift away from what we hope they will be focused upon.  Coordination of effort can break down.  And we can wind up confused and angry about who is deciding what.

Position descriptions that specify roles can be especially useful in times of crisis or emergency because they can help assure that everything that needs to be done does get done, without anyone needing to find a quiet moment to think through what needs to be done.  At Earlham we put some effort into writing protocols for emergency situations, and those protocols delineated who (which role) was expected to do what.  If everyone followed the protocol when we had a suicide attempt or a difficult student conduct case, we didn’t leave important things undone.

So I want to give at least two cheers for thinking in terms of roles and give an extra cheer for especially thinking in terms of roles at times of crisis.  So if McQueary and Paterno followed their roles to the letter, if they did what their position descriptions instructed them to do at a difficult moment, how can we fault them?

I think the answer is that we do want people to think and act in terms of roles and responsibilities, but we ALSO want them to work with a larger sense of the organization’s mission.  At a university (as at most organizations) keeping everyone safe is a key aspect of the mission.  When you see that people are at risk, it isn’t sufficient to say that it isn’t my job or isn’t my role to ensure everyone’s safety.

That responsibility to think and act in terms of the whole mission, whatever one’s specific role, is especially incumbent upon those in leadership positions.  And that’s why, I think, we are more inclined to judge Paterno more severely than McQueary for failing to see that the university did all the right things to stop further sexual abuse of young boys.

Fulfilling your role is important, but it isn’t always sufficient.


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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