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Larry Nassar: What Leaders Should Take Away

by | Feb 7, 2018 | approachable leadership

What can the Larry Nassar trial teach us about leadership?

Larry Nassar has been sentenced to a total of up to 360 years in prison for child pornography and the sexual abuse of more than 250 girls and young women over the last two decades.

As the father of a 14-year-old daughter – who resembles in so many ways all the women abused by Nassar – I cannot tell you how glad I am to see justice served on this horrible person. I don’t support the death penalty, but I’d make an exception for this guy.

I had a long talk with my daughter about Nassar (and some of the recent #MeToo revelations). We discussed what happened and how it happened. How these girls (and boys) shared so much in common with her. How someone you respect or trust can take advantage and turn it into something awful. How important it is to let her mom and me know anytime she feels uncomfortable or unsafe around someone. Not my favorite talk I’ve had with her, but one of the more important.

I want to protect my daughter. One way I can do that is to teach her to be situationally aware. Look out for horrible people like Nassar. While this feels like good advice, it also doesn’t feel quite right. Like I’m saying it’s up to her to avoid abuse. Or that these victims are to blame for getting abused.

Don’t blame the victims

I am an optimist and a glass-half full person. Looking for sexual predators around every corner makes for a pretty bleak world. And the reality is (thankfully) that the Nassar’s and Weinstein’s and Sandusky’s of the world are the rare exception. But it is not the victims of abuse that are to blame. It is the cultures these abusers find or create. Cultures that give them private access to potential victims. Cultures that make reporting abuse unlikely. Cultures that won’t take complaints seriously or respond appropriately.

As leaders this is where we MUST focus: the cultures we create. On the heels of the Nassar trial attention has turned to this question. What could school administrators, the Olympic gymnastics organization, and the investigators themselves have done different? What sort of culture allowed this abuse to start and continue for so long?

But it’s not just “those” administrators. When I look at myself in the mirror I ask: Would I have asked the right questions? Would I have brushed away something that didn’t seem quite right? Would I have spoken up or forced others to investigate? Would I have created the kind of space where a victim felt safe and comfortable sharing their pain? That’s the true culture question.

I want to focus on what leaders and HR professionals should consider in the wake of the Nassar trial and as the #MeToo movement continues to unfold. I believe there are two main takeaways.

One: What kind of culture do you create?

Culture is another buzzword du-jour. I don’t know about you, when some expert starts talking “culture” I often have to catch myself before I roll my eyes. “What more is there to say?” People wonder.

While discussing culture can get tiresome, you can’t overstate its importance. Especially in situations like this. Culture determines what is allowed, encouraged or rejected. If you don’t fit the culture you won’t last long. And if you do you won’t leave. That’s why it is so critical to get culture right. It either reinforces good behavior or encourages bad.

As I listened to the testimonies of Nassar’s victims, one thing struck me most. He carefully crafted an environment where he could abuse his position of power. But he didn’t (and couldn’t) do this alone. It was perpetuated not only by him, but through the massive negligence of others.

This ESPN article gives a glaring insight into just that. Rachael Denhollander, one of the Nassar’s victims, put it like this:

“The culture of enabling is absolutely vital to why pedophiles flourish…You don’t get someone like Larry Nassar, you don’t get a pedophile who is able to abuse without there being a culture surrounding him in that place. Until we deal with the enablers, this is going to continue to happen.”

This begs the question, what does your culture enable? What are you enabling? I know the Nassar example is extreme, but it is a reality. His behavior continued for twenty years. And over the course of those twenty years, many people had many chances to stand up and say, “enough!” To force a serious investigation. To stand up to Nassar and the many others who enabled his behavior. And they didn’t.

My advice?

Pay attention to the small things. The micro-cues that something’s not quite right. The unstated but felt discomfort. When you catch an eye roll or uncomfortable body language, make note. If you overhear a discontented comment, don’t blow it off. Dig a litter deeper. Does someone seem down? Ask them what’s up.

Leaders matter more than we realize. Yes, our technical skills are important. But our most important role is setting the tone and helping others understand the kind of culture we have (and the kind we don’t have).

Culture isn’t some poster on a wall. It is how we treat each other every day. What we allow, encourage, and reject. And that’s all about people. As leaders we must fully care about our people and truly listen to them. Create a safe space where they feel comfortable telling us the good, bad, and ugly about their lives at work and outside of work. When we do that, our teammates will treat each other the same way. And no Nassar, Sandusky or Weinstein can survive in that culture.

Two: How prevalent is power distance at your organization?

Shrinking “power distance” is the goal of Approachable Leadership. Power distance is the very thing that keeps leaders in the dark. In our workshops we show how plane crashes and medical mistakes often start with power distance. It’s brought down companies like Nokia. It is the primary culprit in scandals like the one at Volkswagen last year.

Power distance also played a huge role in Nassar’s scheme to abuse his victims.

From the same ESPN article (emphasis mine):

“Geddert’s [USA Gymnastics Head Coach] coaching style was largely based on fear and intimidation…[He] and Larry were like this perfect storm…You become so unapproachable that your own gymnasts don’t feel comfortable telling you what’s going on. There’s no way any of the girls would have felt comfortable saying anything to John [about Larry]. Kids were terrified of him.”

Power distance at its worst.

Now, would John Geddert have stopped the abuse if he knew what was happening behind the scenes? It’s hard to say. One would hope so. But then again, some argue that he must have known something was going on and never said anything. Either way, we’ll never know. No one ever actually told Geddert.

They were too scared. Geddert was the one with all the power. There’s the power that comes with being an older man working with young girls. The power with being bigger, stronger and louder than everyone else. And the power of being placed in a position of authority – the power to make or break the careers of these aspiring athletes who knew he was their ticket to Olympic stardom.

This is how it works. It’s that simple. Leaders hold the power. And you are either the kind of leader that listens with empathy when someone needs to talk  – or you’re not. And if you’re not, then no one is talking to you.

What to do next

Hold your people up. Let them know you value them. Encourage them to be their best self. Make sure they know they can come to you with bad news or when things aren’t going well. Ask them for honest feedback and accept it.

You can do all this by being an active participant in the community you create with each other. Make some time to hang out. Pop in for a visit here and there. Be on the lookout for things like:

  • Mitigated speech. Are your employees direct when they speak to you or do they beat around the bush? Do they seem comfortable stating their opinion? Do they quickly defer to you?
  • Evasive behaviors. Do they avoid eye contact and keep a physical distance? Do they seem uncomfortable and fidgety? Do they hang around or beat it as soon as they can?

These are two of the most tell-tale signs of power-distance. Actively look for them. They’ll show up. And this is good news! It is your chance to show your team the type of culture you want to create. And it is the only way to make sure predators like Nassar have nowhere to hide.