Joe Paterno, Penn State and Leadership

What do recent events at Penn State and the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno say about the state of leadership today?

Many of the leaders at Penn State failed in various ways by failing to stop the heinous crime of child molestation. Assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is the guiltiest, of course, but other leaders share in the blame.

Sandusky was arrested last Saturday on 21 felony counts, including seven counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. These counts involve alleged abuse of eight young boys over a period of 15 years, including several incidents that allegedly took place at the university’s athletic facilities.

Athletic director Tim Curley and university administer Gary Schultz not only allegedly failed to report the sexual abuse of the children by coach Sandusky, but also made false statements about it to a grand jury.

Penn State university president, Graham Spanier, according to a grand jury report, stated he not only was made aware of the allegations, but approved Curley’s approach in dealing with it. Spanier, one of the longest-serving college presidents in the nation, then pledged his “unconditional support” to Curley and Schultz two days prior to when they both resigned.

Then there is assistant coach Mike McQueary, who was a graduate assistant when he personally witnessed Sandusky raping one of the victims and reported it to Paterno the following day back in March 2002. Curley told McQueary that Sandusky’s locker room keys would be taken away, but McQueary told no one else and took no further action.

Finally, Joe Paterno, the winningest head coach in college football, failed in his leadership because although he apparently reported the news to his boss, he never went to the police, never confronted Sandusky and never followed up to ensure it didn’t happen again.

True leadership requires ensuring that corrections are made when a crisis like this first comes to light. It’s not enough for a coach to simply report the crime to his superior. Eight young boys were victimized and these five Penn State leaders all played a role in contributing to the delay of Sandusky being charged and repeating his crimes.

Leadership requires stepping up to such ethical dilemmas and making tough decisions even when it may reflect poorly on oneself and/or one’s institution. Courageous leadership requires that controversial action is taken when it is the right thing to do, even if it is not in the best interests of the institution.

Imagine if our elected officials in congress could be this courageous. Here at this especially critical time for decisive action we have partisan bickering and an inability to do what is in the best interest of the American people.

Whether it is heinous crimes within a prestigious college football program, insider trading in a multinational corporation, or sexual harassment by a presidential candidate, it appears that the larger or more powerful the person or institution, the more courageous leadership is required.

Powerful forces will always attempt to quell potential damage and that is why it takes so much courage and persistence by victims, witnesses and those who learn of the atrocity to come forward and see that justice is done. No matter where these people are in the organizational chart, they are the ones who can demonstrate such strong leadership.

And when those in true leadership positions fail to act, they must be removed.

About Mark Craemer
Craemer Consulting specializes in workplace communication, organization development and leadership coaching.

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