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The value of trust: Stephen Covey’s lessons for Penn State

Stephen Covey

The passing of values guru Stephen Covey and the announcement of stiff NCAA sanctions against Penn State football share more than the coincidence of timing. Covey’s July 16 death provides an opportunity for reflection on values that transcend the confines of a winning football tradition, a sexual abuse scandal and the punishing sanctions announced July 23.

The two events also provide a concrete measure of the financial cost of ignoring values such as trust. When the Penn State scandal is complete, it will have cost the university far more financially than the $60 million NCAA fine for decisions about “soft” values in pursuit of a “winning” mentality.

In public relations, we see this behavior time and again at the highest levels in all kinds of organizations. In today’s transparent society (thanks to the Internet and social media), lies, misstatements  and half truths can no longer hide in the dark crevasses of an organization’s culture. The Penn State scandal gives stunning new emphasis to an age-old concept: avoid the truth and pay the ultimate price.

At WordWrite, our focus on this dynamic is imbedded in our StoryCraftingSM process, in which we help clients (even in crisis situations) develop their story. To us, a successful organizational story requires three building blocks: authenticity, fluent storytellers and a continual reading of the audience to assure that the story is actually creating two-way conversation. It’s authenticity that suffered most in the Penn State scandal.

Covey, an educator, business leader and author, is best known for his seminal book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He wrote other books, of course, including a Seven Habits sequel, The Eighth Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, in which Covey identified what he called the “six cancers” that inhibit greatness, which he defined as Cynicism, Criticism, Comparing, Competing, Complaining and Contending.

Because The Eighth Habit has been overshadowed by its predecessor, not as much attention has been paid to Covey’s thinking about what prevents people (and organizations) from achieving greatness.

In a March 30, 2009 blog post, Covey laid out some of his thinking behind the six cancers, focusing on what he termed “The High Cost of Low Trust.” In reviewing Covey’s remarkable impact on business and society last week, I stumbled across this blog post.

Numerous parallels — lessons if you will — popped to mind when NCAA sanctions were announced against Penn State for its institutional failure to report and thwart former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young boys, sometimes in campus football facilities.

“Trust is the lifeblood of all relationships, of all transactions, and is so foundational and fundamental to everything in life,” Covey wrote. In low-trust environments, he wrote, “you also see profound disempowerment. People will not be on the same page about what’s important.”

In the independent report on the scandal completed by former FBI director Louis Freeh, investigators recount janitors at the Penn State football building seeing Jerry Sandusky engaged in behavior with young boys they were afraid to report because they feared nothing would happen, expect bad consequences for them. Isn’t this what Covey meant?

At Penn State, the false façade of football achievement took precedence over the reporting of behavior that was later deemed in court to be criminal. As Covey put it in his blog, “Low trust has a huge tax associated with it. It creates a culture of toxicity, just like you have toxins in your body. Imagine what it costs a body to be full of poison. And that is what a low-trust culture is — it is full of poison. You see people embracing and promulgating what I call the six metastasizing emotional cancers. Metastasize means they send their cancer cells through the body, mind, heart, and spirit of a person. They can also spread through relationships.”

Again, comparing Covey’s thinking and the facts of the Penn State case, isn’t this what the Freeh report and others found at Penn State?

The lessons of the Jerry Sandusky scandal spread far beyond the Penn State campus at Happy Valley, beyond football, beyond crime. They strike at fundamental truths about human nature and human behavior in organizations. Ultimately, they relate to the stories we tell ourselves and each other about who we are and what we believe.

Intellectually, few would disagree that the value of authenticity in the stories we share about ourselves and what we believe is priceless. The Penn State scandal proves that the real-world financial burden of ignoring a priceless principle can be considerable as well.

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