Today’s post is the featured article from the November 2011 issue of The Front Porch Newsletter. If you would like to automatically receive The Front Porch e-newsletter on the last Thursday of each month just click here to sign-up for your complimentary subscription.

john-newThe best I can remember, I have never discussed an actual current event in a feature article of The Front Porch. And maybe I shouldn’t. But sometimes there are lessons upon lessons. There are times when the alarms in our lives are silent … and other times they are screaming for our attention.

Penn State is a screaming alarm.

It is the perfect lesson when it comes to core values. And not only a lesson for those at Penn State … although most would prefer to see it only as a lesson for those involved. It is much less demanding to see it that way. After all, it is their problem. But it may very well be our alarm.

When it comes to the “problems” of others, I have come to realize the truth is rarely what it appears to be on the surface. And it certainly is never as easy or clear as it would appear to be either. I don’t know what the truth is at Penn State. I must admit that my first (and second and third) reaction was to question how so many good people could have missed this … or ignored it. It is easy to rush to judgment because 20/20 hindsight is always … well 20/20.

It is also easy to see, so clearly, if you couldn’t care less about Penn State football … or anything else about Penn State. Everything is so much clearer when you are 100% objective … independent. Where you have nothing at stake. Where you have no cost to pay for seeing things exactly as they are.

Passion is truly a gift but can sometimes be a curse.

Rather than spending our time and conversations rushing to judgment about the story of Penn State, I believe we would be better served to ponder the lessons it provides and how it might be triggering silent alarms in our own experience.

First, I am reminded that passion can blind us to the alarms ringing in our life. Rather than judge, I would suggest we would better be served to question our own blind spots. If you don’t think you have any … you have, by definition, just discovered your first. We all have them and some are more dangerous than others.

Second, I’m more convinced than ever that organizational core values are important … but they will never substitute nor replace the essential need for well-defined personal core values. Organizational core values give us a framework for thinking. Personal core values give us courage in the moment. Regardless of the cost. The more clearly we understand the specifics of our personal values, the deeper our courage is likely to run. Penn State’s “success with honor” was a well known organizational value. But it, like any other organizational value, is only as valuable as the connection to our individual personal core.

Third, personal values are anything but personal. They are systemic … and so is the shrapnel damage when something goes wrong. We depend on each other to have them, to know them and to live them. Personal and organizational core values are a must … and executives who are not clear about this are simply playing an organizational version of Russian roulette.

New York Times writer, David Brooks, recently asked an important question on Meet the Press:

Have we lost our sense of right from wrong?

It is a powerful question to ponder. It eventually becomes a stark reality when you are just “winging” your personal or organizational values. The hard part about having core values is they will cost you. The ultimate truth of not knowing your core values is that it will destroy you. It is just a matter of time.

This past year I had the opportunity to meet-up with Jerry Porras, co-author of Built to Last. We were talking about values and he made an excellent point: We truly understand our core values when they are put to the test. I believe he is right on-target. I also believe “the moment of the test” is a really bad time to start figuring them out.

There are always numerous lessons we can learn from the tragedy of others if we choose to reflect rather than judge. No matter the details of the truth, it appears many things went terribly wrong at Penn State. They need to take a really hard look deep inside.

As do all the rest of us.