Joe Paterno, tough lessons in leadership

Posted on Updated on

Last week thousands of mourners lined up along the route to the funeral for Joe Paterno, head football coach at Penn State University to pay their respects and offer their condolences.  After a stellar career, the last months of his life were anything but easy.  By his age, 85 years old, most in his profession had been retired for a decade or two.  But he continued to find satisfaction and success in his calling right up to the end.

However, his undoing did not come on the football field.  Accusations against Jerry Sandusky, one of this trusted assistants, had branded Sandusky as a sexual predator who had been seen molesting a young boy in the locker room.  When the incident was reported to Paterno, his response proved to be wholly inadequate from both a legal and moral frame of reference.  Sexual abuse of a minor is a non-negotiable, must-report offense that mandates that law enforcement authorities be notified as soon as an accusation is made.  Paterno passed the information on to two university officials but did not report it to the police.  For that failure, his renowned career came to a catastrophic end and the hero of millions suffered a devastating dismissal from a position he had held with such distinction for forty-six seasons.

Lessons for Leaders
When leaders see what happened to Paterno, red flags should pop up everywhere.  One careless decision can end a career–we all know that!  But in this case, Joe was not the perpetrator of the crime but was responsible for the one who did and failed to follow through when a tough call had to be made.  Books will be written on this subject so I will confine my remarks to a couple of points to be learned by all leaders, and especially those who influence thousands of lives (like coaches, pastors, teachers and professors, corporate leaders, etc.).

1.  Loyalty has its limits.  One of the toughest calls any leader faces comes when a trusted friend and loyal co-worker messes up.  You want to be loyal to your friend and believe and hope for the best, but there is a higher loyalty to what is right that often dictates what we must do.  No one wants to ruin the career of another person on the basis of an accusation and that is laudable.  However, in some situations–sexual abuse of a child being a very serious one–one cannot escape the responsibility to act according to the legal and moral expectations upon you as one in leadership.

2.  Ignorance is no excuse.  That sounds so harsh!  But sadly, the primary issue for Paterno is that it appears he was not up on what was required of him and did not make it his business to find out.  Whether by carelessness or a genuine belief that he was doing all that was expected of him in reporting it to university officials above him, his claim to not know the constraints of the law would not have protected him had he lived to face any legal repercussions from his failure to report what he had been told.

3.  Role models do bear a burden.  When you rise to a level of fame like Paterno, or like many of the athletes he coached, or in any other industry or profession, your burden to be a role model is not a welcome one but it does come with the territory.  Carry it well and you will be able to say without apology like the Apostle Paul, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

4.  The buck does stop here. Former President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk saying just that.  Those is top leadership roles cannot release all their responsibilities to others, especially when a problem emerges that only you can handle.  Paterno chose to take a course of minimal action (from his testimony, it was because he was not told the extent or the true nature of the accusation and did not understand what had actually been witnessed).  But follow up questions and intense investigation of anything of this nature, especially given the culture in which we live in which sexual abuse of minors has become a national disgrace, is woefully under-reported and accusations often not believed.  Instead of due diligence to discover what must be done, the downfall of Paterno was in his decision to leave any action in the hands of others when he was held responsible both legally and morally.

5.  If you plan to stay, you have to be all in.  Like many leaders approaching the end of their careers, especially successful ones, there is a tendency to coast, to adopt a laissez-faire approach to issues that you would once have jumped on top of immediately.  Whether that happened with Paterno, I cannot say.  It was not apparent that he had done that on the field, but perhaps the diligence of younger years would have prevented this horrible error in judgment.

Second-guessing has become an art form–it has even been given a football driven name, “Monday morning quarterbacking.”  No leader worth his salt would dare to throw stones at Joe knowing the glass houses in which we live.  But it does serve as a warning to all leaders to maintain a vigilant approach to your calling, whatever it might be.  If you are going to take the lead, you have to have a commitment to see that all aspects of the work deserve your attentive care–no sloughing off, no shirking responsibility, no shifting the blame.  If you lead, you need to carry the ball tenaciously until you lay it down for good.

Paul speaks of this approach to life in his words to Timothy at the end of his days,

    But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.  For I am already being  poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:5-7).

When we run the race well, we bring great glory to the Lord who created us for that very purpose.  So it is vital for all in leadership to keep running all the way through the tape at the end of the race, never letting down, never compromising, never backing away from all that you are given to do.

In his book The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary,  author Joseph A. Michelli describes what makes Starbucks so successful.  The second principle applies to what we see here:  “Everything matters.”  Even at the end of the road, leaders still have to understand that there are no insignificant details.  Joe Paterno missed a very big detail and it cost him dearly.

The point of all this?  Run the race all the way through the tape…never think that a problem or an opportunity placed before you can be ignored without consequences.  Maintain the highest priority of keeping yourself above reproach in all things–especially regarding financial matters, interactions with members of the opposite sex, and other issues relating to personal integrity.

When hard things come to your attention, if you are not sure what to do, find out!  Be diligent and faithful and you will find that you can sleep well every night knowing that by the grace of God you did all that He asked of you.  “Therefore, be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).  God will provide everything you need to walk in godliness if you keep your eye on the prize!

3 thoughts on “Joe Paterno, tough lessons in leadership

    Alex said:
    February 2, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Cool blog! Succinct but still insightful. Mind if I take note of and share this?

      davidhhorner responded:
      February 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm

      Thanks! Hope it is helpful! Feel free to pass it on.

    Joel said:
    February 1, 2012 at 11:13 am

    Excellent article David. Wise counsel for all leaders!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s