Listen to this blog post:
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.