Morals and Ethics are Important to Everything that People Do, this Importance Applies Especially so to Leadership

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Morals and ethics are important to everything that people do, this importance applies especially so to leadership. Leaders influence those who follow them, and as such they must take careful action to ensure that they act as ethical leaders. Johnson (2018), describes ethical leadership as a “two-part process,” in which a leader performs moral actions and guides the ethical development of those around him or her (p. xxii). Unfortunately, leaders sometimes fail ethically in their actions, and therefore are unable to guide those around them; an example of such failure is found when examining the leadership of Larry Nassar. Larry Nassar’s ethical failure shows that a leader’s actions can be horrible when left unchecked; however, followers have the unique opportunity to change their leader’s unethical failures into new, transformative leadership.

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Doctor Larry Nassar worked for Michigan State University (MSU) and the USA Gymnastics Olympic team. He worked for these two organizations for about twenty years as a doctor for athletes. He was a team physician for MSU and a member of the medical staff for USA Gymnastics. Over the course of his career he became well known and respected. Recently he has been accused by over 150 women of sexual abuse and been sentenced to the equivalent of life in prison (Vaidyanathan & Hughes, 2018).

One of the key players in bringing Nassar to justice was Kyle Stephens. She was the first of the women to testify against him. Her case was slightly different than most as she had not been one of his patients, but her family had been friends with him. She was abused in her home by the doctor, who denied it at the time making her parents believe he was innocent. She said that he “denied abusing her and had said that if she was ever really abused, she should remember to report it” (Vaidyanathan & Hughes, 2018). A few years later she was able to convince her parents that she had really been abused and began to take action against Nassar (Vaidyanathan & Hughes, 2018).

 Larry Nassar was well known to be a great doctor during his career, and thus many female athletes went to him. During the testimonies many of these athletes said they were “intimidated by his powerful status” and did not believe that they would be able to take an action against him (Vaidyanathan & Hughes, 2018). He would take advantage of his patients by convincing them that what he was doing was routine and just part of the treatment. Due to his reputation as a renowned doctor the patients would believe the lies he told them, and even questioned if they were even abused. One of the victims, Rachael Denhollander, said “when he went down there, I just told myself it was normal, that he knows what he’s doing and don’t be a baby” (Vaidyanathan & Hughes, 2018). Larry Nassar has since been sentenced to over one hundred and fifty years in prison (Levenson, 2018).

With this case coming to light questions are being asked as to how long this had been going on for and how he had been able to get away with it. Also, it has been found that reports had been filed against him previously, but nothing came of them, making people think that people at MSU and USA Gymnastics knew about the abuse and allowed it to continue (Vaidyanathan & Hughes, 2018). Due to this, pressure has been put on these organizations and several people in leadership positions have resigned from both organizations. Shortly afterward, the US Olympic Committee issued a statement apologizing for “failing to stop Nassar’s abuse and for its inadequate response at his trial” (Levenson, 2018). In response to her experience, Kyle Stephens is now spearheading a movement to increase awareness and education regarding sexual assault in order to help prevent it. She hopes to make the issue known, and has created several steps and is acting upon them to stop this problem. She calls for action and stated, “Every day we do nothing, we send a message to victims everywhere that their pain doesn’t matter, and that their lives are expendable. This cannot go on” (Stephens, 2018).

The key players in this leadership failure are Larry Nassar, Kyle Stephens, the organizations that employed Nassar, and Judge Aquilina. Larry Nassar is the leader who had the ethical failure. He abused his position as a well-known and respected leader to appeal to his self-interest at his followers’ expense. Kyle Stephens is a new transformative leader, who inspired other women to testify and is implementing a positive social change. She seeks to ensure that what happened to her never happens to someone again. The organizations that employed Nassar, MSU and USA Gymnastics, were irresponsible in dealing with reports of the Nassar’s abuse and therefore failed their duty to protect the followers.

They had received reports from the patients but did not follow through with them. Judge Aquilina presided over the case, and allowed all of the victims to have time to testify in court and share their story, making sure they all had a chance to be heard. She made a few uncommon choices as the judge of the trial.

She chose to let all the victims share their stories, as she felt this was the most she could do for them, and even offered personal advice and encouragement to the women as they testified (Levenson, 2018). When examining the failure of Nassar, it is important to look towards possible motivators for his actions. While this is a complex case and it is impossible to know Nassar’s true motivations, a good place to look is values, as they are the main guiders of human action (M. Waters, personal communication, 2018). Values can be split into two categories, terminal and instrumental values. Terminal values are end goals for a person, while instrumental values are ways to act that will help reach those end goals (Rokeach, 1979). These values are not typically thought of to be negative.

However, in examining the case of Nassar it appears his main terminal value is personal pleasure, and his instrumental values include intemperance and dishonesty. Values affect a person’s sense of right and wrong and may have been part of Nassar’s personal motivation for his actions that led to his ethical failure (Rokeach, 1979).

In addition to values, people make decisions based on their ethical perspectives. Pragmatism is an ethical perspective that focuses on making decisions “with an end or value in mind” (Johnson, 2018, p. 154).  Nassar’s actions seem to be self-centered, and he did not take into account how his actions would affect his followers. However, he did act in accordance to his values making him most closely align with the pragmatism ethical perspective outlined by John Dewey (Johnson, 2018).

There are many leadership problems to be found in Nassar’s case, but the three most prominent are poor focus, abuse of power, and toleration of unethical practice. As a leader it is important to take into account the followers’ needs, Nassar clearly did not do this. He failed to see past his self-interest, which shook his moral focus. Moral focus is a key component tomoral action and self-interest is a threat to moral focus as it makes individuals ignore moral norms (Johnson, 2018). Additionally, Nassar abused his power as a leader in a way that hurt his followers. Along with being a leader, an individual gains more power. This is how that individual is able to influence his or her followers (Johnson, 2018). This power can be in several different forms, most notably the five types of power listed by French and Raven. This power types are: expert power, referent power, legitimate power, coercive power, and reward power (French & Raven, 1959). The two that were most prominent with Nassar are referent power and expert power. He was known to be a fantastic doctor, one of the best, giving him expert power. Also, he was well known in the field and recommended to athletes by both MSU and USA gymnastics, providing him referent power (Vaidyanathan & Hughes, 2018).

While these two power types can be the foundation for good leadership, Nassar used them to his advantage to abuse people in need, acting in his own self-interest with no regard for his patients’ interest (Vaidyanathan & Hughes, 2018). His power was used to harm his followers, and he was unable to overcome the “shadow of power” that Johnson (2018) identifies (p. 6). Johnson (2018), also identifies common behaviors of leaders that abuse power: “deceit, constraint, coercion, selfishness, inequity, cruelty, disregard, deification” (p. 10). Nassar’s actions clearly fit with deceit, cruelty, disregard, and deification, or a feeling of superiority over followers (Johnson, 2018). These behaviors help identify Nassar as an intemperate, evil, and corrupt leader according to Kellerman’s types of bad leadership (Kellerman, 2004). Kellerman (2004), defines intemperate leadership as “leaders that lack self-control and are aided by followers who do not effectively intervene” (p. 95). Nassar’s intemperance was sexual in a nature and he lacked self-control for his lust. The followers who aided in his intemperate leadership were the people at MSU and in USA Gymnastics that did not take action when his abuse was reported to them. They enabled his habits by tolerating his unethical practices. In addition, they enabled it by trying to convince those that were against him that they were wrong; for example MSU told one of the victims that filed a report against Nassar that they “did not understand the difference between sexual assault anda medical procedure” (Levenson, 2018).  Nassar can also be identified as an evil leader, which Kellerman (2004) defines as:

The leader and at least some of the followers commit atrocities. They use pain as an instrument of power. The harm done to men, women, and children is severe rather than slight. The harm can be physical, psychological, or both. (p.191) At this time it is hard to determine if the followers of Nassar, people in MSU and US Gymnastics, have committed atrocities, as the case is just coming to light, Nassar himself definitely has committed some. The harm he has done to his followers has drastically affected them, with some saying they “no longer trust doctors or that they shrink from any physical touch” (Levenson, 2018). Nassar’s evil leadership also has some of the forms of evil, most evidently dreadful pleasure and deception, that Johnson (2018) identifies. Evil as dreadful pleasure occurs when an individual commits evil acts for their own personal enjoyment, which partly comes just from having power over the other (Johnson, 2018, p. 110). Nassar definitely enjoyed having power over his victims, and got pleasure from his abuse. In addition, Johnson (2018), identifies deception as a form of evil in which evil people lie to others to make them believe they are normal while they secretly perform evil acts (p. 112). Nassar was able to convince the organizations he worked for that he was a morally sound doctor, and tried to deceive the victims themselves into believing he did nothing wrong to them. The final type of bad leadership that clearly applies to Nassar is corrupt leadership. Kellerman (2004), defines this as “the leader and at least some followers lie, cheat, or steal. To a degree that exceeds the norm, they put self-interest ahead of the public interest” (p. 147). Larry Nassar lied to his patients and the organizations that hired him. He also put his interests above those of others. It is uncertain to what degree his followers in the corresponding organizations were corrupt at this time.

There are several ways this situation could have been avoided. First, Nassar could have been more of a servant leader. Servant leadership focuses on the followers and their needs (Patterson, 2003). Servant leadership incorporates apagao love, this means the leader acts with love towards his or her followers. Acting with love means considering people as “a total person — one with needs, wants, and desires” (Patterson, 2003, p. 3). Instead Nassar thought of his followers not as total people but as followers in a moreoutdated view. Rost (1995), describes this old view as considering followers to be unable to act on their own, and “willing to let others take control of their lives” (p. 190). As such he did not help his followers, while a leader who used love in their leadership would have been able to be “emotionally, physically, and spiritually present” for those following him or her (Ferch & Mitchell, 2001, p. 70). Secondly, the people in positions of authority at MSU and USA Gymnastics could have helped the situation by being more effective followers. Effective followers are critical of leaders, provide feedback, and work to ensure the organization acts responsibly (Kelley, 1995).

These people could have listen to the reports the athletes made against Nassar. Instead they ignored them, or told the victims they were wrong. This action left the athletes looking for direction as they tried all options in their repertoire and the formal authority in the situation was not providing direction (Gladwell, 2005). Third, Nassar could have used a different ethical perspective when considering his actions as a doctor. He could have looked to Kant’s categorical imperative, which involves trying to always make the right, “duty-bound” decision (Johnson, 2018, p. 149). The duty of a doctor is clear, to help one’s patients recover in the best way possible, and had Nassar thought to follow this duty in his decisions he would not have harmed his patients. Alternatively, he could have used a utilitarian perspective, which seeks to do the most good for the largest group possible. As a doctor with the number of patients he saw it would have been easy to do good for a large number of them, instead he did not overcome his twisted personal interests and damaged the patients. Using a utilitarian perspective he could have seen that working against his personal interests was in the best interest of his followers (Johnson, 2018).From the fallout of this failure some new transformative leadership has begun. One large contributor to his new leadership is Judge Aquilina. She allowed everyone affected by this failure a chance to have their voice heard in the courtroom, something that is not a common occurrence in court trials (Levenson, 2018). This started with some sharing their stories, which in turn inspired many more to share their stories. Sharing their stories helped them realize they were not alone, they began to call themselves an “army of survivors” (Levenson, 2018). As a leader creating a holding environment is important to fostering growth, physical, psychological, or emotional (S. Chace, personal communication, 2017).

Judge Aquilina was able to use her position as a formal authority to create a holding environment that made the victims feel safe and welcome to share their stories. Many did not think they would ever be able to share their stories, and talked afterwards of the “strength they had gained from the others who had spoken in court” (Vaidyanathan & Hughes, 2018). Judge Aquilina was able to act as a “therapist, advocate, and friend to the women,” because of this they were able to cultivate positive change within themselves, and also it laid the foundation for Kyle Stephens to begin her leadership (Vaidyanathan & Hughes, 2018). Kyle Stephens was the first to speak against Nassar in the courtroom. Her story inspired many others to testify. This inspiration helped create a group of “sisterhood” and “army of survivors” for the victims (Stephens, 2018). The creation of a support group for the survivors gave them strength to overcome their fears and testify, it also reinforced the feeling of belonging and minimize the idea that they were alone. This is a clear positive influence enacted on the entire group, and that positive effect is also applied to the leader, Kyle, from the group.

This two-way positive influence is an example of transforming leadership. Transforming leadership was defined by James MacGregor Burns in 1978 as a process in which “the leader and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality” (p. 20). Transforming leadership also is seen when a leader is making a positive social change. Kyle Stephens is now heading a movement to minimize sexual abuse in the United States. She calls for people to become more willing to talk about sexual abuse prevention, saying “our unwillingness to shatter the stigma surrounding sexual exploitation keeps us from realizing the immensity of the problem and the imminent danger to those we love” (Stephens, 2018). In addition, Stephens calls for people to educate each other about sexual abuse prevention and seek change in their communities’ policy. She hopes to bring this issue to the attention of the political leadership of the United States, by having elected officials implement policies regarding sexual-abuse prevention, saying that “anyone who doesn’t see remedying this problem as a priority is unfit to lead our country” (Stephens, 2018).

Another area for new leadership has opened from this situation. The leadership positions of MSU and USA Gymnastics have emptied as most of the position holders have resigned after the case became public (Vaidyanathan & Hughes, 2018). This provides an opportunity for new people to step up and create a positive change, hopefully the new leaders will listen to some of Stephens’s advice and listen to reports that are made against employees.

Also, this new leadership will have the chance to stop the toleration of unethical practices, and make the organizations act responsibly. Larry Nassar committed atrocities against many women, and as a result was a terrible leader. He was a leader who failed ethically, and in turn caused his followers severe pain. He is now serving a life sentence in prison, and many of the people that aided him have resigned from their positions (Vaidyanathan & Hughes, 2018). However, this awful failure has provided a chance for some new positive leadership, found in Kyle Stephens’s transforming leadership. This new leadership will hopefully stop future failures similar to the case of Larry Nassar.

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Morals and Ethics are Important to Everything That People Do, This Importance Applies Especially So To Leadership. (2022, Oct 05). Retrieved December 6, 2022 , from

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