A couple weeks ago I watched a documentary called Happy Valley about the recent controversy surrounding the Penn State football program. It’s a terribly sad story, mostly centering around former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky having molested and raped many young boys he recruited through his program for at-risk kids called The Second Mile.
The documentary aims to objectively show the ramifications of coach Sandusky’s actions on an entire community, and especially on a football program that prides itself in excellence, character and discipline.
Character after character in the drama attempted to separate the program and the community from the actions of one man.
But the nagging question throughout the entire documentary was implied:
How did one man get away with such evil deeds?
Especially since, for years, quiet rumors were spreading and witnesses had even caught him in the act in the locker-room shower. Yet for ten more years, Sandusky had free reign over all Penn State facilities.
Especially troubling in the documentary was the story of Jerry’s own adopted son, Matt.
Matt, older now and with a wife and children, defended his father against the accusations all the way up to the trial. Finally, as more and more evidence loomed, he came forward. Sandusky had recruited, brainwashed and adopted him, in part, as a sex toy.
Once Matt made his story known, nobody in the Sandusky family spoke with him again. This remains true to this day.
So how do people like this get away with it?
I think for many reasons.
The powerful tribal dynamics of college football play an obvious part. But this story is nothing new.
I want to shine light on yet another reason and as sick as it sounds, it’s this:
Jerry Sandusky did a lot of good deeds.
He actually rescued young, neglected kids. He changed lives. He quoted the Bible. He was known as a man of prayer and a deeply religious man. Before he was caught, he’d do interviews promoting his organization and nearly come to tears talking about the needs of the underprivileged kids in the community.
So, how did he get away with it for so long?
Easy. He posed as a hero.
It’s easy for people to believe somebody is evil, but once they’re convinced a person is good, moral, heroic, then you’re asking the public to admit they were wrong about them. And that’s hard for the public to do.
As a pastor friend recently told me:
“Don, individuals are smart but crowds are dumb.”
In my day, I’ve met more than a few religious leaders who get away with near criminal activity because the masses are convinced they are saints.
It’s nearly impossible to believe that people who talk so much about Jesus, who’ve led so many to Christ and who position themselves (and are perhaps in a strange way even quite sincere) as followers of Jesus also commit emotional abuse on their staff, spiritual abuse on their followers, financial gymnastics with ministry funds and so on and so on all under the cover of their “good deeds.”
So how do we know if somebody is safe or full of it?
Here are some signs of unsafe leaders:
1. They have a track record of burned bridges. People who are publicly heroic but privately dastardly rely on convincing a revolving cohort of associates they are the real thing. Until, of course, the new cohort figures it out. Then they’re run off or they step away quietly. The manipulator doesn’t care, of course. He or she is in the business of leading the masses through acting, not individuals through actual care.
2. They do not admit their mistakes. Manipulative leaders have way too much to lose to let them know they’ve got chinks in their armor. If they have to admit to something, it will be vague. But they will not admit they are wrong about anything specific. They will not, ever, reconcile with those they’ve wronged. They don’t care. Again, they are playing to the masses because that’s were the power is. They want an army of strangers to defend them.
3. They want control at all costs. If they have a board of directors, they will all be submissive or they will be run off. Nobody can question their righteousness because if they do, the whole thing will unravel. They do not have people in authority over them because if they did, they could not hide their manipulation and deception. They are top dog, always.
4. When caught, they play the victim. Manipulators are manipulators through and through. When caught, they vaguely apologize but very quickly spin the narrative so it looks like they are the righteous victims who, at most, made a small mistake and are being crucified for it. Once again, they use this tactic to corral the masses to go to war for them. The true victims, of course, are forgotten in the drama. All the attention goes to the manipulator, which is how they want it.
Mostly, though, we can use our intuition.
If dozens of people have personal stories, some of those stories are likely true. Sadly, if you speak up, you will be attacked. Manipulative leaders train masses of strangers to defend their righteousness. If there’s no crime being committed, my advice would just be to quietly walk away and don’t get entangled.
If there’s a crime, sadly, it should be reported. You’ll pay for reporting it, for sure. But it should be reported anyway.
Some may wonder who I’m talking about.
The truth is I have people in mind. There are 5 leaders I’ve met over the years, most of them widely unknown in the public, who fit this characteristic.
That’s a small number, considering I’ve met hundreds of incredible leaders. But I doubt these bad eggs are alone. It seems like a leadership style or class of leader.
Have you known a leader like this? How did you handle the manipulation and deception?