Monday, January 23, 2012

Lessons in Leadership: Joe Paterno

With the passing of Joe Paterno this weekend, after a tumultuous last two months since the breaking of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State, I thought we could pull out a few interesting leadership lessons that we can apply to our businesses.

First of all, a little more about Joe Paterno, the iconic football coach at Penn State from 1966 through his firing in November 2011, after the scandal broke.  During this time, he became the winningest football coach in the history of college football, with an incredible 409-136-3 winning record.  He lead his teams to 37 bowl games and won 24 of them (or 65%).  He has been walking the football sidelines since before I was born in 1969, and is mentioned in the same breath as other all-time great coaches, like Knute Rockne, Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.  Joe Paterno was the face of Penn State and all of college football for generations, sitting atop the pedestal of his field as a Hall of Fame coach.  Joe took great pride in his reputation and his position as a father-figure to his players.

But, in one fell swoop in November 2011, that all changed.  Paterno's walls came tumbling down and his reputation became forever stained with the breaking of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.  Sandusky was his assistant coach at Penn State for 30 years (1969-1999), and the defensive coordinator of the program in 1999, the year he stepped down (supposedly for not being able to become the head coach, with no retirement in sight for Paterno).  We should have known something was wrong in 1999, when Sandusky simply evaporated from the world of college football, with no head coaching position elsewhere, for one of the best defensive coordinators in football, at the time.

According to investigations underway, Sandusky had been sexually abusing under-aged boys while at Penn State, right around the time of Sandusky ending his coaching career at Penn State in the late 1990's.  And to make matters worse, Sandusky's actions continued to happen well after that time, even within the walls of the Penn State football facilities.  As witnessed by assistant coach Mike McQueary walking in on Sandusky raping a 10 year old boy in the Penn State locker room showers in 2002.  This incident was reported to Paterno the next day, who supposedly took it to the senior athletic administrators to deal with.  Nothing ever happened to Sandusky, who continued to walk the streets of Penn State, right through the scandal breaking in November 2011.

So, the immediate questions, as it related to the key players in this series of events, are: (i) what really happened in 1999 that lead to Sandusky retiring (it is too coincidental that the first sex abuse claim was from that exact time frame), and what did Paterno and the university know about it; and (ii) what more could McQueary, Paterno and senior Penn State officials have done to deal with the 2002 incident and Sandusky, both at that time and thereafter. 

We'll never know the answer to the first question, until the investigation is completed (and now, key witness Paterno, is gone forever, making that a difficult task).  But, as for the second question, it is clear to me: (i) although McQueary witnessed the event in process and should have immediately taken the boy out of there, he did take the information to his boss Paterno and the university official who manages the campus police to deal with the next day (which I imagine was a very difficult thing to do, for a young graduate assistant trying to make a long term coaching career for himself in "Paterno Land"); (ii) Paterno put his 30 year personal relationship with Sandusky and the reputation of Penn State football, in front of the interests of the victims of Sandusky (without thinking about long term consequences to himself if this news ever came out down the road); and (iii) the Penn State police chief, athletic director and other university officials did everything they could to keep any negative light coming to the university (for an amazing 12 year period between 1999 through 2011, until the hachet finally fell).

So, the key business lessons here: (i) never try to hide bad news or criminal activity, regardless whether or not you are best friends with the offender, or are worried about losing your job or the negative impact on reputation (the truth will always come out, and you will be perceived as a stronger leader tackling difficult situations head on); (ii) once a bad employee is identified, they must be swiftly dealt with, not only by terminating employment and pressing charges, but in access to the company or its facilities (I am shocked Sandusky had keys to the Penn State locker room and was walking campus even after he stepped down); and (iii) if you do 100 great things as a leader, but mess-up on one big one (especially if you are perceived as covering something up), it can ultimately change your legacy from champion to chump in a nano-second.  Don't let yourself fall into that trap.

Unfortunately, I can see how this happened to Paterno and Penn State.  It is tough sending your best friend of 30 years to prison, and trying to deal with this in your own private way (e.g., firing from job, mandated sexual counseling), so the negative news doesn't impact college football recruiting or the millions of dollars flowing into the Penn State football program and university.  But, at what price?  The lost justice of Sandusky's victims, who were little boys that would forever be scarred for life? 

History will only tell if Paterno gets remembered as a champ or a chump.  But, it took 45 years of hard work to build up Paterno's stellar record at Penn State, and only 45 seconds to knock it down.  This story is very sad, at so many different levels (for Paterno's legacy, for Paterno's last thoughts before dying, for Paterno's family dragged into this, for the assistant coaches who got fired who may have known nothing, for the shocked PSU alumni, for the former Penn State players that looked up to Paterno as a father figure, for the current Penn State players and recruits forced into turmoil and potential NCAA charges for nothing they did, and most importantly, for the Sandusky victims involved). 

Nobody took his reputation more seriously than Joe Paterno.  That is why he coached for as long as he did, in becoming the #1 winningest coach of all time.  But, Todd Blackledge, a PSU alum and ESPN broadcaster, got it right this morning, when he said: "but despite the symptoms of lung cancer, Joe Paterno died most of all from a broken heart."

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