Oswald Letter

3 Leadership Lessons from Penn State Debacle

If you’re anything like me, you’re sick of hearing about the whole Jerry Sandusky/Penn State sex abuse case. Sick of it, first and foremost, because the thought of what Sandusky allegedly did to those young boys, and the evidence appears overwhelming, is enough to make you physically ill. And sick of it because the 24-hour news media must examine the scandal ad nauseum.

Taking advantage of children and stealing their innocence is about as repulsive of an act imaginable. How bad is it? Even murderers and other hardened criminals can’t stand pedophiles. According to a 2003 ABC News story, “prison is a living hell for pedophiles.” The article says “prison can be a menacing place for child molesters.” So much so, that a corrections officer at the Los Angeles County State Prison said, “Once their crime has become known, they usually don’t make it” without protective custody.

Maybe Jerry Sandusky is lying awake at night thinking about that. I hope so.

But as reprehensible as Sandusky’s acts were, others share blame in this whole saga. That includes then-graduate assistant and current assistant coach Mike McQueary, who says in 2002 he witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a young boy, yet did nothing to stop Sandusky from continuing the act. Nor did McQueary contact the authorities. He reportedly told his father and then Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno. But he never called the police.

What about Paterno? A person on his staff tells him what he has witnessed, and Paterno takes it to his boss. Again, he doesn’t confront the alleged perpetrator who once had been his heir apparent. He doesn’t call the authorities so the incident could be investigated. He doesn’t make any effort to find out who the boy was and contact the parents. Paterno just passes the buck on to the athletic director.

And on it goes. The athletic director, Tim Curley, informs the senior vice president of finance and business. At some point the senior VP, Gary Schultz, tells University President Graham Spanier. But what action did any of them take? None that I can see.

Like I said, it’s sickening to think about. But here are three lessons to be learned from this awful tragedy.

Don’t pass the buck. In this situation, no one – and I mean absolutely no one I can see — took any responsibility for that young boy or the situation. Everyone was content to pass this messy problem on to someone else. We’re talking about the life of a child, yet no one could garner the courage to face the situation and do what was in the child’s best interest. Instead, they passed the problem on and washed their hands of the whole ordeal. Pontius Pilate comes to mind.

Well, at least Paterno, Spanier, Schultz, and Curley are all unemployed at this time. It’s certainly not justice for that child, but maybe they’ll come to understand that they need to take responsibility. It should be a lesson to the rest of us, too. There are certain situations where you need to accept responsibility and not pass the problem on to someone else. Leadership comes with certain responsibilities — you can’t choose when you’re going to accept them and when you’re not.

Loyalty is honorable, but blind loyalty is foolish. Maybe Paterno thought he was being loyal to his long-time friend and assistant. It might be that Paterno and the others thought they were being loyal to Penn State University and trying to protect its reputation.

But you cannot turn a blind eye to these types of actions. It is never, ever, ever OK to ignore wrongdoing out of a sense of loyalty to anyone or any institution — especially when it’s at the expense of a child. I want my managers to be loyal to the company, to me, and to their people, but that loyalty must be earned and well-deserved. And there are times when a sense of right and wrong outweighs that loyalty.

Never put $$$ above morals. Pennsylvania’s state police commissioner called Paterno’s failure to contact police himself a lapse in “moral responsibility.” It makes me wonder if Paterno and the other school officials who attempted to sweep this whole tragedy under the rug weren’t putting the almighty dollar above their own moral and ethical responsibilities. Could it be that they were concerned what this would do to Penn State’s fundraising? Might they have thought about how this could affect their ability to convince parents to entrust their young sons to the school’s football program and coaches? And we all know that major college football is a big money generator for the school.

We’ll never know for sure what caused seemingly intelligent and decent men to ignore such an egregious act, but I wouldn’t be surprised if money didn’t play a role in it. Managers and executives face situations daily where cutting a corner or a little “white lie” could mean a big difference in the bottom line. You can’t succumb to that temptation and let the money dictate your actions.

This entire situation is tragic. It’s easy to say that you or I would never have allowed this to unfold the way it has. But there are also lessons we can all take away from it. It’s not much consolation, but learning from our own mistakes and those of others can help us to avoid repeating them.

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