Simone Biles, a gold-medal winning gymnast, said she was abused by Nassar.

Lesson from Michigan State University: Empathy Is a Key Leadership Trait

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on January 22, 2019

One of the most important skills of any leader is to know when and how to communicate empathy. The third senior leader at Michigan State University during the past 12 months, Interim President John Engler, has just demonstrated that he lacks this skill in remarks he made about the sexual abuse victims of Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar.

On Jan. 24, 2018, Nassar, physician to athletes at MSU and national team doctor for USA Gymnastics, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison (concurrent state and federal sentences) for sexually abusing young women. Around 150 women gave impact statements in court prior to his sentencing. It has been reported that there are at least 265 Nassar victims.

A Jan. 11 Detroit News article quotes Engler, speaking about those sexual abuse victims who were not personally in the news, as saying, “In some ways they have been able to deal with this better than the ones who’ve been in the spotlight who are still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and recognition…”

“Enjoying that moment … the awards and recognition?” Did Engler not understand how inappropriate and insensitive that sounds?

On Jan. 12, the chair of the MSU Board of Trustees, Dianne Byrum, commented in a Twitter message, “[Engler’s] remarks were ill advised and not helpful to the healing process, survivors, or the university.”

On Jan. 16, Engler resigned his position as interim president of MSU effective Jan. 23, after learning he lost the support of five of the eight MSU trustees and would be terminated if he didn’t resign. In his resignation statement, however, Engler did not acknowledge the comments that led his loss of MSU trustee support. He did not express regret that his comments were hurtful to the athletes who were abused by Nassar. He blamed politics as the reason for his loss of trustee support.

Understanding when and how to express empathy was an issue with the previous president of MSU, Dr. Lou Anna Simon, who Engler replaced, and the vice chairman of the MSU board, Joel Ferguson. I wrote an article about Simon and Ferguson in February 2018 headlined, “Viewpoint: Michigan State tone deaf to abuse by Nassar.”

In that article, I wrote that in the face of growing criticism from many of the students, faculty and staff at Michigan State on how Simon handled the accusations against Nassar, and after losing the confidence of a number of MSU board members, Simon resigned her position as long-time president of the university on Jan. 24, 2018.

In her resignation letter, Simon wrote, “To the survivors, I can never say enough that I am so sorry that a trusted, renowned physician was really such an evil, evil person who inflicted such harm under the guise of medical treatment.”

Simon added later, “As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger.”

“Politicized,” Dr. Simon? I am not sure how the abuse of so many young women can be politicized.

Similarly, MSU Vice Chairman Joel Ferguson was also insensitive and tone deaf to Nassar’s victims. During an interview on a Detroit radio show before Simon’s resignation, Ferguson commented, “There are so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing.”

“Just this Nassar thing,” Mr. Ferguson? As someone who holds the same position as Ferguson at another university, I believe his remarks and attitude were completely inappropriate.

After being widely criticized for his insensitive comments, a spokesperson for Ferguson released a statement that in part said, “Mr. Ferguson deeply regrets his comment and apologizes to those he offended.” Amid calls for his resignation from the MSU board, he chose not to do so, and remains on the MSU board.

An important responsibility of an effective leader is to set the right tone at the top and nurture the right culture at their organization. What a leader says or doesn’t say in part sets the tone and culture. Your employees and other stakeholders listen to you. Be sensitive to what you communicate to them.

Your employees may make statements or act in a way consistent with your attitude or what you say. Show compassion to those that have been wronged or hurt. That’s what effective leaders do.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership, and is the former CEO of PQ Corporation. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.