Make It Go Away


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Make It Go Away

Sometimes leadership is really unpleasant. A rather distasteful problem is delivered to your desk. It’s ugly. It’s going to be messy. Someone is going to get hurt. Maybe someone has already been hurt. Our initial impulse is to look at colleagues charged to make us successful as leaders and say, “Make it go away!”  Sometimes they oblige out of blind loyalty in an effort to protect us and the organizations we lead. In the end, this is a failure of leadership.

One morning years ago, our daughter boarded a school bus in the usual place, at the usual time. It was not a usual trip to school. The driver pulled onto a side street and turned the bus around in the opposite direction, heading away from the school and into the next town. A neighbor, whose daughter was aboard the bus, happened to be following the bus route on her way to town. The unusual turn caused her alarm as she changed direction and continued to follow the bus on its peculiar route. A mistake? A detour? A crime?

Passing several side streets suitable to correct the misguided course, the bus proceeded. A call to the school, followed by a call to the commercial regional bus company and calls to the driver, eventually resulted in a call to the police. The journey ended in a quiet residential area. A police escort returned the bus safely to the school. Yet, there were more questions than answers. What was this driver doing? Why was this driver allowed to operate the bus on the return trip to school? Why weren’t the police called immediately? What are the policies and procedures for handling this kind of situation?

Word traveled quickly through the neighborhood as parents networked to share information and concern. A vaguely worded memo was sent home to families, who promptly gathered in the street to discuss the unusual circumstances. It was interesting to note that the parents had already independently obtained and shared more information through informal networks than the official memo provided. Everyone was eager to reconstruct the events, find the correct explanation, and hold those responsible accountable for the situation.

A meeting was called at the school. The story we were told only increased confusion. The driver either received a call to return for a student who missed the bus…or she saw a student on another bus route who had missed a different bus…or she was confused and exercised poor judgment. We were assured that at no time were the students in any danger. Confidence eroded and speculation abounded.

Some thought she must have been operating under the influence. Others suggested this was perhaps a manifestation of some illness. The conspiracy theorists developed a scenario of an unauthorized side trip to complete a drug deal. The lack of clarity was generating more heat than light. Those seeking a clear explanation were to be disappointed. We would never learn the specific details. There would be no formal investigation by the police, the bus company or the school district.

Most puzzling was the statement that the driver, who would apparently continue to be employed by the regional bus company, would no longer be permitted to drive for our school district. I remember thinking – Wait a minute. Did I hear that correctly? Is that supposed to make me feel better? For some it did. As long as their children were not exposed to any further risk by this driver, it was someone else’s problem if there were to be a reoccurrence or something worse. For others, this was a shocking revelation. Were we content to passively allow others to be placed at risk? Could we simply turn our faces and absolve ourselves of responsibility for the well-being of other children? It seemed so convenient to simply make it go away.

There was a lot of hand waving by the district leadership reminding everyone this driver was not an employee of the town or the school district, but of a private bus company. Some moved on, content with the outcome and recommended policy changes. For others, there was a knot in the stomach. I remain haunted by this result.

These events emerged on the heels of the scandal that rocked the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston as the criminal prosecution of pedophile priests was chronicled daily in the news. Moving assailants from one church to another became a management tool in organizational damage control to the profound detriment of children who suffered from horrific abuse. Similar stories have been told in other parts of the United States and in other areas around the world that transcend regional boundaries, religious traditions and organizations. With the recent news surrounding Penn State, today we walk a journey of pain in higher education as it seems those most vulnerable have become the victims of abuse.

We are reminded as leaders of community-based organizations, educational institutions, communities of faith, businesses and corporations, and government agencies that our duty of care can never be compromised by self-interest. We pray for a world where the challenges of discrimination, abuse and other horrors do not exist. But when we encounter them, as leaders, we must respond firmly with decisiveness and compassion for victims.

It’s time for us to renew our resolve and provide the assurance of safety and well-being for everyone we encounter. Let us set the highest standards and protect everyone as if they are members of our own family.

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9 responses to “Make It Go Away”

  1. Don Huffman says:

    This is another remarkable blog that causes us to stop and consider some of the ways in which many of us are tempted to wish some problem to go away, or at least to hope it does not land at our own doorstep. I’m afraid you are right that this does make leadership a sometimes painful situation. Personally I have never been completely able to shake some of the guilt for incidents that arose with regard to civil rights as I was growing up in the Midwest. While never sympathetic with the racial stance that permitted bus drivers to ask my black friends to go to the back of the bus, or to go to the “black car” on the train when we entered some bordering states, or to use only the segregated restrooms or dining areas, my own indignation was not often great enough to personally intervene in these and like incidents.
    Perhaps that is why international conflicts are so difficult to solve.”If it’s not my problem, it’s not worth worrying about.” It seems a universal problem for the human animal to resolve.
    Hopefully, we will see leadership able and willing to deal with our problems.
    Whether leaders, or fellow travellers with the oppressed or degraded people, the situation was painful. Later, with greater realization of the ethical necessity to insist on equal rights for my minority friends, I learned that simply feeling ill at ease can never be an excuse for failure to insist on equal treatment for all people.
    The silent majority can never justify the individual’s decision to stay uninvolved in any situation. Yes, it does make leadership a less enviable position in many cases, but discrimination, abuse and mistreatment can never be justified by the fact that our own group/institution/community is not immediately involved with the problem.

  2. Ann Hinga Klein says:

    For me, too, the times that I witnessed suffering or injustice and didn’t act are the ones that have resonated through years and even decades.

    I hate what happened at Penn State. But Mark and Don, you’ve reminded me that while I’m judging the leaders involved in that situation and waiting for justice for the vulnerable individuals whose abuse (and that word doesn’t even come close) was so earth-shatteringly ignored, I can also do more to insist on equal treatment for my fellow travelers who are being denied respect, rights and basic dignity.

  3. Dave Kosmicki says:

    In my small business I have resolutely taken the stance to tell the truth and “let the chips fall where they may”, with customers, employees and myself. The most loyal costumers I have are ones that went through a “sweep under the rug” incident at some point. Mistakes owned up to, don’t detract from one’s reputation. They actually enhance it. The short term strife is always worth the long term benefits, not to mention the sense of satisfaction.

    In a broader context, I see the reflection of a societal misconception. In my youth it was called form over function. The appearance of integrity can easily take over as the only goal, and has in many instances. In fact I believe the overwhelming tendency of any organization is in this direction. Any leader needs to keep constant guard against it and take concrete proactive steps to prevent the drift. We all make mistakes. How we deal with them makes all the difference.

  4. Mark Truth #3 says:

    If Putnam wants to show leadership instead of “the appearance of integrity” he has plenty of opportunities. Why not start with exposing the truth about pot at Central College? When a student gets caught with pot on campus, do the police know? yes. Do they get arrested? no. Does the school know? yes. Does the student get kicked out of school? only for a semester, after which they are warmly welcomed back. think money (for Central) and it all makes sense. Financial leadership!

    • Don Huffman says:

      Mark III,
      Your comments remind me once again that there can never be a solution to any problem by decisions made only from higher level leadership. When was the last time you remember a student having made an effort to report pot use, alcohol possession and use in the dorm, academic cheating, etc. so that appropriate action can be initiated? After all, students are an integral part of the campus community. To the extent that students witness violations of campus or college/state/city laws and fail to report them, that student is not being a fully responsible member of the college community.
      As a former dorm director for 3 years I can assure you that it is literally impossible to enforce appropriate behavior on campus unless the students themselves assume the responsibility to report and help control these incidents.

  5. This blog and its responses are reminding me of my tendency to identify with the ideals of compassion and justice for all, an identification which is from a position of power, and to neglect implementation, which is a position of service and identification with those victimized. Sometimes I become overwhelmed and feel helpless in light of the immensity of the need for service.

  6. Anya says:

    Actually, students do get arrested and sentenced for pot use on campus. We may not hear about it as faculty, but I’ve attended court hearing in Knoxville where a student was sentenced for just that offense.

  7. Ed Ver Hoef says:

    I obtained my BA in 1954 from Central with a double major in math and physics. After finishing my tour of duty with the US Army, I obtained my MS in math from De Paul University in Chicago. Along the way I got involved in software development which became my career for the next 40 some years. During that time I often was called upon to interview job candidates. A large percentage of these people held engineering degrees. I was sadly disappointed in many of these candidates. They almost universally were quite deficient in almost any field other than engineering. Typically their verbal and writing skills were abysmal. Their colleges had done them a sad disservice. Even assuming they were employed as engineers in an engineering company, it would be necessary from time to time for them to write reports on the work they were doing and this communication deficiency would be quite evident. Without these skills, when it came time for them to be eligible for promotion, unless they had worked on developing these skills on their own, they were not likely to be viable candidates.

  8. George Brown says:

    For many of the last 20 years, I have been in municipal management positions in three communities in three different states. I think that sometimes people equate leadership with management. While a manager can be a leader, many times a manager is not allowed to be a leader within their organization. I think a leader can create within an organization an atmosphere that encourages others to follow that leadership and to become leaders themselves instead of yes-men. On this issue raised about the school bus, I think it is unfortunate that in many attempts to save money our schools think it is ok to privatize services. In this case, the bus company is accountable to whoever hired them and the parents of the children who ride the buses. It is easy to say that the school hid behind the bus company, but also the parents can seem to prefer retribution for an action that did not result in any harm to the students.