How trying to cover-up will sometimes make you naked
In 1972, Richard Nixon was running for reelection against a woeful candidate who was the Democrat party’s answer to the incompetence, irrationality and incoherence of someone like Michele Bachmann. With a lead in the opinion polls approaching 30 percent, the most memorable moment of the campaign was when one pundit quipped that the only way Nixon could lose the election was for him to be found in bed with a live man or a dead woman.
Neither happened and Nixon, of course, won a victory of such overwhelming proportions that it earned a place in election record books: Nixon captured the electoral vote in 49 states, harvested more than 60 percent of the vote and received a plurality of 16 million votes, the largest margin in the history of presidential elections. And yet, in less than two years, the president who began the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam, eased cold war tensions, initiated strategic arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union and opened relations with the People’s Republic of China was forced to resign from office in disgrace. He left behind two years, six months of his four-year term and some $500,000 in salary.
Jim Tressel has been the football coach at Ohio State for the past 10 years and during that time compiled one of the most successful records in college football. Under Tressel Ohio State won 82 percent of their games, participated in eight BCS bowl games, played in 3 BCS title games and won the national championship in 2002. Maybe most significant of all – at least for Buckeye fans – is that during Tressel’s tenure Ohio State defeated Michigan nine out of 10 times. And yet, like Nixon before him, Tressel has been forced to resign in disgrace. He had four years left on his estimated $3.5 million-a-year contract.
What happened and what can be learned from these tragic failures?
Much like a single match that can ignite a cataclysmic explosion, it was the small things that led to the downfall of both Nixon and Tressel. For Nixon it was a two-bit burglary seeking information that even if successfully purloined, would have made no difference in the election. For Tressel it was a penny-ante sale of football memorabilia in exchange for a few non-memorable tattoos. As you can readily see, it was not the magnitude of the transgressions that caused the downfalls of Nixon and Tressel, but how they responded to them. When both Nixon and Tressel were informed of the indiscretions of others, they answered by covering up their knowledge of what had happened.
These attempted cover-ups merely whetted the suspicions of the media whose watchdogs are ever-hungry for the scent of wrongdoing. Nixon invited the frenzy of the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; Tressel caught the investigative eye of Sports Illustrated, as well as NCAA officials.
Assuming Nixon did not know beforehand (which is a big assumption) of the break in at the Democratic headquarters, when he did learn who were responsible, instead of taking quick actions to condemn and terminate those involved, he conspired with others to create an elaborate plan to protect those implicated and hide his knowledge of the event.
Assuming Tressel did not know beforehand (which is a big assumption) that players were receiving illegal benefits by selling memorabilia, when he did learn what was happening, instead of reporting the transgressions and putting a stop to them, he entered into an elaborate plan to protect those players involved and hide his knowledge of the events.
The decision to cover-up inappropriate actions, rather than disclosing them created two problems: for both Nixon and Tressel it generated an air of suspicion and led to discovery of a pattern of abuse.
We now know that Nixon’s motivation to cover up the Watergate burglary was his knowledge of (and participation in) a pattern of immoral, unconstitutional and often-illegal actions that had been standard operating practice in his administration. Nixon knew that once the dam of collusion began to leak, a gusher of deceitful information would certainly drown his presidency. We don’t yet know all the facts that motivated Tressel to embark on the cover up, but we can surmise that, at the very least, it was done, ironically, to protect his carefully crafted, pristine reputation for demanding high ethics from his coaches and players. While Tressel has claimed he went into cover-up mode to “protect his players,” it does not take much cynicism to conclude that his real reason was to keep the players eligible in order to protect his winning record and possibly to hide other abuses; only time will tell.
So, what can we learn from these actions and the results they generated?
Well, we could draw the conclusion that if we are going to avoid falling into a pattern of activity that could ruin our reputation and future, we need to have a better plan for cover up than Nixon and Tressel had. But of course there is a better approach and one much more likely to promote success.
It may seem simplistic, and I guess it is, but the only way not to fall into the trap that ensnared Nixon, Tressel and scores of others is to assume that all decisions you make and all actions you take will become public knowledge.
If, when Tressel first became aware that players were systematically violating NCAA rules and before he decided to warn the player’s representatives and cover up the activity, he he should have asked himself, “What will this look like if my actions become public?” He may have lost a few football games by coming clean, but his job and reputation would today be intact. (That is unless like Nixon he knew of other activities would make the situation even worse.)
Admittedly, when Tressel learned his players were violating NCAA rules (even if stupid rules) it would have been difficult to turn in his players knowing they would lose eligibility and possibly impact the rest of their lives. It may be that Tressel was simply trying to protect the players, but by failing to consider the impact of this action becoming public, he made the problem much worse than it would have been.
We don’t have to be president or a big-time football coach to gain the benefits of a philosophy that assumes any and all our actions will become public. If you travel for a company and assume that each and every expense report you complete will be closely audited, there is little chance you will ever be questioned. If you serve on the board of a company and operate on the basis that every decision made and every action taken will ultimately become public, then there will never be a temptation to engage in a cover-up.
This philosophy is more than complying with the “letter of the law,” it means complying with the “spirit of the law.” How many times have CEOs, companies and boards of directors found themselves in trouble for attempting to comply with the laws of disclosure, but in reality covering up the intent of what they were trying to do?
The simple point is that if you ever find yourself in a position where you have to attempt to cover your tracks, then it is obvious that you have taken the wrong track. And while there may not be a Woodward or Bernstein, or some other media or government watchdog who follows the scent of your misfeasance, you would do well to act as if there could be.
And the Moral of the Story …
If, whenever you are presented with a decision or action to be taken, you always ask yourself, “What will this look like if it becomes public?” then there will never be a need to have to consider a “cover up strategy.”
That does not mean that you will not have to make difficult decisions and it won’t protect you from being criticized or from making the wrong decision, but it will protect your credibility and your ability to make other decisions in the future. And best of all, you’ll never have to lie when you say, “I am not a crook.”