Leadership and Joe Paterno: “Success with Dishonor”

What lessons can we learn about leadership and Joe Paterno?

I’m a Penn State grad. I was a huge fan of Joe Paterno and had looked at him as someone to emulate. Like so many others who graduated from PSU, the Penn State child sex abuse scandal hit me hard. Jerry Sandusky truly deserves to be in jail for the remainder of his life and I’ve no problem with the rest of the punishment of the President, athletic director or anyone else, but I’ve really struggled with Joe Pa’s involvement and what the consequences should be regarding his legacy.

When I really pulled back and looked at it — through the prism of leadership — it was easy to see how Paterno did not live up to the standards that he espoused in public. With his repeated lack of action, everything he stood for comes crumbling down. His motto “success with honor” is nothing more than an empty phrase when one accepts the fact that he conspired to hide the truth about Jerry Sandusky and protect Penn State and its beloved football program over those children.

I can think of nothing more honorable than protecting children. And nothing less honorable than not doing so. Leadership is about doing right by everyone — your employees, your customers, your vendors, your stockholders, the environment. Sometimes there may be conflicts — and doing right by one group means another isn’t satisfied, but this was not one of those cases.

Leadership requires integrity. I’ve heard claims that Paterno didn’t fully understand what Sandusky had done, and couldn’t fathom it. I find this to be of little comfort, and more than a bit disconcerting. As leaders, we owe it to ourselves and our businesses to understand how that business is operated, what message it produces, and how our employees conduct themselves. This is why governance must be at the forefront of any business owner’s mind. Uninformed and clueless are obviously not traits one willingly wants associated with themselves. In fact, it’s the last defense of a leader who has lost control and no longer leads.

It makes you wonder how someone who in so many other ways was a great leader can fail so spectacularly in such a crucial area. Paterno weighed the consequences to his beloved football team and university and I’m sure he knew Sandusky’s actions were wrong. It was an active choice to do the wrong thing while telling himself that he had the best interests of the university at heart. What he should have considered were the consequences to the children and that by not taking right action, even more were victimized.

If Joe Paterno had stood up for those children, if he had come out and said, “Jerry Sandusky is a pervert preying on children” and made sure it went to the proper authorities, he would be a hero. He would truly have had “success with honor.” Unfortunately, his lasting legacy will be success with dishonor. What a shame.