The unlearned lesson

Institutions have a bad habit of not learning lessons. The unlearned lessons may even be from their own history, yet they go unlearned or unheeded. Examples continue to pile-up like a stack of unread reports or emails.

To compile just a short list of such examples, consider the following organizations and what each failed to learn: the Catholic Church, Toyota, VW, Wells Fargo, Penn State University, Michigan State University, The Ohio State University, Congress and the current President just to name a few.

The Catholic Church has known about a significant problem for many decades with pedophile priests. Yet, protecting the institution was the first motivation, not stopping the abuse of children. Even after major scandals occurred in Boston and Ireland, signicant change did not occur to prevent future molestations.

The unlearned lesson is you focus on the abused as you fix the problem, not protecting the institution. When you address the problem openly and painfully, that is how you protect the institution. Cover-ups eventually fail, because the truth has a way of getting out.

Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State are major universities and sports marketing franchises. Leaders within Penn State and Michigan State have known for years that there was a sexual predator in their midst. Yet, they chose not to act, trying to hide it from the public. As a result, more young boys, girls and teens were molested. By not addressing the problem, they brought appropriate shame to their marketing brands.

Ohio State has a similar issue with a physician who worked with the wrestlers. It has been known for years by athletes and coaches to avoid this doctor due to his practice of checking for testicular cancer for any visit, such as the flu, cold, fever, etc. Yet, nothing was done until several men came forward about their experiences.

For-profit companies are notoriously protective of their brands, but the better solution is to come clean and remedy the problem. Toyota was very slow on their floor rug braking problem. VW purposefully cheated emissions tests and were very slow to fess up after discovery. Many car companies who used Takata air bags also were slow to reveal a massive and deadly problem.

But, it is not just car companies. Banks and financial entities have experienced issues with aggressive and even illegal sales practices. Wells Fargo has justifiably gotten a lot of press for setting up false accounts as staff tried to keep jobs and earn bonuses. Bank of America and American Express have been fined for selling products and services that people did not request or need. And, pay-day lenders have a business model of excessive usury.

Even our governments have a hard time learning lessons. When the incumbent dishonors the office, the institution must penalize the incumbent. It matters not what party the incumbent belongs to. This applies to local, state and federal levels of government. It must apply to Congress and the White House. The punishment can vary from formal rebuke to censoring to removal from committees or from office.

Trust in institutions has waned. Some of this mistrust is due to hyperbole, such as what the current President has done to protect himself, but much is due to institutions not dealing with problems openly and appropriately. It also is due to them being more concerned with image than substance.

On this latter point, another unlearned lesson is the best way to keep your job is to do your job. And, when others don’t and/ or harm people, the institutions should fix the problem and let people know that they have. It is the right thing to do and avoids covering up and abetting criminality.

13 thoughts on “The unlearned lesson

  1. I wonder if it isn’t the same mentality that the teen-ager shows when he refuses to use his seat-belt: it can’t possibly happen to me. Lessons cannot be learned unless we take them to heart and believe that “there but not for the grace of God go I.”

    • Hugh, you are right about the example of a teen and seat belts. The unlearned lesson concept applies to so many failures that could have been avoided. Not learning the mistakes of Vietnam led the US to Iraq and Afghanistan. In the US Revolutionary War, British General Cornwallis fell into Nathaniel Greene’s plan of letting Cornwallis gain little victories, but he tired his men and kept getting further from his supply lines. Until it was too late.

      This is a key reason companies that promote CEOs from within have more universal success. An outsider would not have a history of what was tried and failed and why.

      The list is endless. What if we each could go back in time and apply the lesson we should have remembered? How would our lives have changed?


  2. Note to Readers: I worked for a company whose parent company never learned the lesson of arrogance. I can think of two huge mistakes that could have been avoided had the leadership team not been so arrogant. On these two occasions, two sister companies had done something wrong. When regulators approached them, if they responded with “we hear you and take your findings very seriously and will look into, fix this and report back,” that would have gone better than “we have not done anything wrong.”

    The first penalty was in the $200 million range, while the second one was in the $750 million range. If they learned the lesson the first time, could they have avoided the second penalty? It might have saved the CEO’s job.

  3. In sitting on non-profit boards, I’ve learned the value (and pitfalls) of staggered board terms to retain a degree of “institutional memory.” But while having a grip on the history of an institution is important, sometimes that “memory” seems to exist only for the sake of covering tracks. That is a huge pitfall.

    • Linda, the covering tracks motivation is powerful. We need more folks to question why are we doing this or we cannot brush this under the rug? Too often, people are scared to speak up. Keith

  4. Great post, and so true. Not just protect the ‘brand’ at all costs…but protect the profits as well. Getting out in front of these issues would seem to be the likely choice but when it comes to $$$$$$$$….companies/human beings/politicians…. so often can’t think logically. Greed runs rampant in our society. History just keeps on repeating itself

    • So true. Some of these organizations zealously protected their brand, then it backfired when they screwed people over. To be frank, the Catholic Church deserves to be hit with a major class action suit with some folks going to jail. They betrayed people’s faith.

      Bank of America was hit with a $780 million fine and Wells Fargo can’t keep out of the news for fraudulent activities. They protect their brand and then go out and take advantage of their customers. They forgot the lesson of taking care of one’s customers enhances brand image.

      Thanks for stopping by. Keith

      • No problem Keith. You make good points. Sounds like you have considerable experience with this. In my mind, until we really deal with money…and I mean specifically, money in politics….we’re never going to get a handle on this. I fear it might be too late. I hope not.

      • Many thanks. I think you hit the nail on the head about money in politics. There seems to be no appetite to remove or limit it. Two problems result – a US Congressperson or Senator spend more than 1/3 of their time fundraising, leaving only 2/3 to actually work on our behalf.

        The other is political positions that run counter to logic. There are many Republicans who know climate change is a real problem, yet their fossil fuel funders tell them not to voice this concern. This is just one example where we cannot move to rational legislation. Thanks, Keith

  5. Excellent examples … all quite apt. The Chinese believe that history is cyclic, and in the past decade or so, I understand why. We fail to learn the lessons of history, fail even to learn from our own past mistakes. Of course we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.

    • Jill, so true. Trump sounds just like Nixon in his denials. He will be proven wrong just like Nixon. It is just more difficult with his sycophants working at a pseudo-news organization. Keith

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