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Timothy R. Clark: What can we learn from Jerry Sandusky?

Published: Monday, July 2 2012 11:26 p.m. MDT

When I was doing graduate work at the University of Utah, another student and I were assigned to welcome a new student from Russia. We showed him the campus and helped him get settled into his dorm room. The next day we took him to a large supermarket. We walked through the doors and headed down the cookie aisle. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened. He was speechless. He scanned the shelves and asked, "What should I choose?"

I don't recall which cookies our new Russian friend chose. It didn't matter. What does matter is the moral choice to be a leader. It's is a choice and we have to make it regardless of whether we hold any formal leadership responsibility. It's thrust on every human being.

The American Catholic philosopher Michael Novak said, "Every story in the Bible, Hebrew and Christian, is the story of a choice to be made freely in the often hidden will of each individual. From King David choosing in one chapter to be faithful to his Lord, and in another not to be, the suspense in every book of the Bible is: What will the individual choose next? In other words, in the mind of the Creator, the arena that matters is within the human will.

Consider the possibility that there are four categories of influence: The first category is coercion; the second, deception; the third, abdication; and the fourth, persuasion.

Coercion

Coercion is unwanted force applied to the mind, the heart or the body of another human being. To coerce is to control, force, exercise dominion or compulsion over or subjugate the will of another. The great irony of coercion is that the person who exercises coercion ultimately suffers captivity. Those who seek dominion are eventually dominated themselves — by others or by the tyranny of their own choices — which leads to destructive ends. Mr. Jerry Sandusky chose coercion.

Deception

To deceive is to willfully mislead in order to entrap and ensnare. Mr. Sandusky impersonated a leader. He wrapped himself in the storied tradition of Penn State football. He borrowed the brand of the institution and billed himself as a builder of boys and young men. Secretly, he betrayed all of these things. He was the great pretender. Mr. Sandusky chose deception. And last of all, he deceived himself. But that's not all. It is impossible to do the things he did for as long as he did in total isolation. There were silent accomplices.

Abdication

Abdication is apathy, complacency and indifference. Abdication is an act of abandonment. It's the sin of withholding, of not caring enough to do something. Mr. Sandusky chose abdication. He surrendered his stewardship to preserve and protect young men. Where was the coach who was instilling discipline, confidence and courage? Where was the man who was charged to teach, train and embolden? Where was the trusted friend and mentor? But he was not the only one. Others at Penn State abdicated through their unwillingness to take action. It was a colossal failure of nerve that began with an individual and spread throughout an entire system.

Persuasion

That leaves persuasion. The philosopher and economist Adam Smith wrote, "All the members of human society stand in need of each others' assistance and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries." Persuasion is the moral choice to influence others by invitation toward positive ends. Mr. Sandusky was skilled in the art of persuasion, but toward destructive ends. He used persuasion and coercion and deception to subdue his victims into years of silence. The choice to persuade rests on a profound acknowledgement that people are inherently priceless and that we share a sacred stewardship to help, lift, build and encourage one another. I wish Mr. Sandusky had chosen positive persuasion.

He didn't, but we can. It all begins with a simple, moral choice to influence others people through positive persuasion.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. He newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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