Learning from Joe Paterno’s Leadership Failure
Coach Joe Paterno was laid to rest this week. He’s clearly loved. 10,000 tickets were reserved for his memorial service in seven minutes. His accomplishments on behalf of Penn State, college football, and his football players are indisputable.
Paterno’s failures are delay and lack of follow through.
His own words:
Joe Paterno should have done more when Mike McQueary told him of a sexual encounter between Jerry Sandusky and a young boy in a Penn State locker room. He said so himself.
“In hindsight, I wish that I had done more.” Joe Paterno
I wish Joe had let his simple heartfelt statement stand. But he didn’t. In an interview with the Washington Post …
Joe later added:
“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
Joe went on to say:
“So I sat around. It was a Saturday. Waited till Sunday because I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And then I called my superiors… I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn’t feel adequate.”
- Leaders get in over their heads. Expect it.
- Say what you know even if you don’t know what to do.
- Say what you know privately. Avoid hysteria and grandstanding.
- Follow through, privately.
- Follow through persistently.
- Leaders take responsibility without excuses.
I believe Joe when he says, “I was afraid,” and “I didn’t feel adequate.” But, I don’t need to hear it.
“I wish I had done more,” is enough. Joe said more when he said less.
It’s easy to second guess leaders, especially high profile leaders. How should leaders handle their public failures?
Connected post: “College Sex Scandals, Candor, and Leadership” —When the boss doesn’t want to hear it the people won’t say it.
More on mistakes: “Creating a Mistake-making Policy” — Perfect people can’t be trusted.
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I think taking responsibility without excuses is perhaps the greatest strength of leaders. I believe that leaders afraid. They afraid of losing trust, integrity and reputation. And this makes them stronger when they admit and take responsibility. I think leaders handle their public failure by sharing and admitting with trusted ones. They avoid sharing with those who are chameleon cum opportunist. These kinds of people make fun of failures. Leaders know whom to share their feelings. I strongly believe that failure is integral part of breakthrough success. Leaders take failure in positive manner because they know that failure leads to success. They learn what factors do not guarantee success. I believe that definition of failure depends upon person to person. So, before knowing failure, we should understand what failure mean to us is. Is it material achievement, moral development or something else? And I am sure; leaders’ failure is related to Trust, integrity and reputation
Thank you for your comment.
I’m taking this statement with me … “failure is an integral part of breakthrough success” … It’s both honest and hopeful at the same time. Very useful.
Respectfully, I am going to go out on limb here – on a principle – not on this particular situation (on which I know only enough to be dangerous) – I don’t think he went too far.
I am fine with what is attributed to Joe Paterno above. I don’t read these particular quotes as excuses at all. I think we are all far too quick to confuse explanations with excuses. Explanations help us to understand so that we can do better next time. Excuses try to dodge responsibility. The confusion occurs when the two overlap – which should not obscure the importance of the explanation.
IMHO great leaders get this and are humble enough to submit to that kind of scrutiny – even through the pain of it. If we don’t understand why we can never address root cause. I do think that when we, as audiences, understand how this could have happened we can all be more vigilent in preventing a re-occurence.
This is not to suggest that all this “talking aloud” was to serve the purpose I suggested however it may. I have an on-going concern that pressures on leaders to preserve the “face”, or avoid legal liability, of the organization (both valid enough standing alone) obfuscate finding real solutions to such complex problems.
I’m so thankful for your comment. I was hoping we might have some divergent opinions.
The line between excuse making and explaining centers on behaviors and justification.
Explaining = I did this or that.
Excuse making = It wasn’t that bad because ….
I agree that explanation are necessary and useful.
It’s a tough line.
Thank you for extending the conversation.
Well said, Dan. That one statement would have sufficed.
It is not like this is something that doesn’t occur everywhere and that we aren’t all responsible for the lives and welfare of our own children, as well as those entrusted to our care. But, this can’t be treated like he saw a kid fall down in the playground and din’t report it. These issues are complex, and they have far-reaching, deep-seated and long-lasting effects in the lives of these children; some they may never recover from.
Yes, he was afraid, we all get that and we’ve all been there, and we don’t know for sure what we will do when we are placed in this situation.
Yes, we all wish we could do more. Let us hope that we each do, when the time comes.
I love how you own this and encourage us all to do what we can.
Thanks for a kick in the pants (in a nice way)
The problem with public failures is they are much harder to control than the private ones. Sometimes public failures come with the press sitting in your lobby or clogging up your phone lines. Sometimes public failures come with people standing outside your building yelling or even following you home. Sometimes public failures come with PR specialists giving advice your not sure you are comfortable with during a period when you are in over your head. Sometimes public failures come with everyone around you in panic mode. None of this changes the lessons you listed you above but it does make them harder to follow in the very ugly aftermath of a very public failure.
I sense both compassion and realism or realistic compassion in your comment.
I bet you are an encouraager at heart.
Thank you for being a regular contributor.
Thanks for having the courage to write this. While I wish the story of this great man had not ended on a sour note, leadership demands moral responsibility. Having been raised Catholic I am very sensitive to this flaw in human character. For too long too many people looked the other way and wouldn’t face the unseemly reality of priests abusing young men and women. If it were a victimless act I wouldn’t care, but the world is filled with people whose lives were ruined or damaged by these sick and selfish people.
As leaders we cannot tolerate — even for a second — even at great personal risk or loss — looking the other way. Once you look the other way you have lost your soul and given up the honor entrusted to you.
Sad, but true.
Thanks for mentioning the courage thing. It was hard to post today’s article. I wanted to be respectful and honest. Plus I wanted to avoid being sensational.
Your illustration may be the grossest example of leadership negligence regarding character in modern history.
I’m thankful to see you bopping in and wish you the best with your book. http://www.amazon.com/Business-Speed-Now-Customers-Competitors/dp/1118054016/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1327774170&sr=8-1
Those times when you can’t or shouldn’t say more than you’ve said about a difficult situation, whether it was a failure or not, really are some of the toughest spots of leadership.
Having been deeply involved in situations that called for disciplinary review for misconduct that did not involve criminal prosecution. I know that I can’t say more than “We have a process for dealing with this. We are following that process. It is a confidential process.” That is never enough for the person or people who feel wronged by the actions of the person under review. It is in the nature of many people to want to know the details. Of course, in this kind of proceeding, that can’t happen. Only the outcome is announced.
Holding those secrets is one of the most stressful parts of leadership. That’s what makes it so essential for leaders to have a trusted person — therapist, coach, whatever — who must ethically hold your information in confidence to process these situations with. When you can tell as much as you need to to one person, you can get clear so that you don’t weaken and give into the pressure of the demands of others who have no business knowing more than the general statement.
Great addition: Have people in your life who are ethically bound to confidentiality.
Legal violations are easier than ethical. Most believe Joe didn’t break any laws. He fulfilled the legal obligation.
Additionally, when people break the law they’ve lost the right to privacy. In those cases candor is called for.
I always appreciate your insights and look forward to finding you here.
Hi Dan, when you first blogged about this incident I sort of went over the top so will restrict my comments. I totally agree with John there are certain things in life for which there are no excuses. Not feeling adept or knowledgeable to tackle a situation is not enough. As a leader you have the obligation to pursue by whatever means any and all possible solutions and address the problem wherever it may lead you.
As we all have read “there is no such thing as a lapse in integrity.” We coach our staff to pursue solutions and stay with the customer until the right person, the right thing or the right promise is found. We can slice it and dice it anyway we want but at the end of the day putting the concerns of an organization over your moral turpitude is just unacceptable. Yes we forgive Joe for his behavior as we should but forgiveness does not mitigate the outcome. We all have had to say “mea culpa” at one time or another and human frailty afflicts us all but there are some boundaries I have trouble understanding their breach. Thanks for the post, as noted above Well said.
As I read your comment I started thinking about the simplicity and wisdom of “I screwed up” without anything else.
Others have noted there are lessons to learn. I dared to share the ones I learned. But those are for us to teach when we fail as much as for others to learn through observation.
“There is no such thing as a lapse in integrity” You always have a way of nailing it.
This comment taken with so many others that were filled with compassion adds weight to your insights.
Thank you for being you,
Joe Paterno did a lot for Penn State and should be remembered for those contributions but the situation did not call for words it called for action. The first question I would have asked is ” Is the Kid safe ?” and the second question would have been “Why aren’t you all wet from getting the kid out of the shower?” and finally “What do you mean, you didn’t call the cops !” No crisis is ever helped by passing the buck, Ensure no further damage is being done then scream bloody murder until help arrives; then worry about what you know or don’t know and who is qualified to deal with it. Trust and be Trustworthy is a function of what we do not what we say.
Thank you for your comment. I love your focus on behaviors/actions. It think that focus applies before, during, and after a crisis.
It’s not so much “why” but “what” should be done. (not to minimize the importance of why)
Thank you for joining in,
How should leaders handle their public failures?
I think your post raised some good points, and it is interesting to discuss this situation from the vantage point of being several months out from the initial public disclosure of this issue.
Of your six-item list, possibly the one that was most lacking in the Penn State situation was #5, follow through persistently. And I suspect (just a bit of conjecture here) that Paterno was unable to put himself in the shoes of those children who had been violated. Not that it takes having been through something like that to understand it or feel compelled to act, but somewhere between hearing the initial reports from the graduate assistant and deciding to “let superiors handle it,” he did not make a connection with how bad the situation was for the young men involved and how someone reporting to him was directly responsible.
I also feel deeply sad for Paterno’s family, who regardless of all of the issues that have transpired, still grieve which we all know is the most difficult of times.
This is the post I wrote about the responsibility of adults who witness issues of sexual abuse of childen, in which I linked to Dan’s November “College Sex Scandals” post.
It is clear that Joe’s first concern was for Penn State and the reputation of Penn State.
I think getting to the bottom of this situation as quickly as possible and bringing the facts to light would have been better for the University. Of course I’m using 20/20 hind sight.
Thank you for leaving a useful link.
Best to you,
I wonder, Dan, in saying less, he apologizes. But in saying more, doesn’t he provide a lesson to others who may find themselves in the same situation? He tells us, yes, it’s okay to feel inadequate and it’s okay to ask for help. When you know something isn’t right, get over yourself and do something about it.
Well said. Those are the lessons I’m drawing out of this sad situation. I think they are important.
I’m not sure that we should be thinking about the lessons we can teach others when we fail as much as simply taking responsibility and moving on.
I see where you are coming from and appreciate your perspective.
I follow you on Twitter.
That was a great reference!
Thank you Debbie.
Thanks Linda, I was thinking the same thing, that in an unfortunate way, he is teaching everyone life lessons one last time. I think he said enough with.”wish I had done more”. But I think he knew he was dieing when he gave that interview to the Post and was just trying to convey his side of the story while he could.
I say this as a big fan of his, he could have done more, or followed up. We may never know what was said up and down the chain of command at that point; behind the scenes. He told people who were actually paid for Leadership positions at that institution, who did nothing about it. Leaders among other leaders. It was a huge failure in leadership. Sadly, Joe was the face and the name that everyone has known for years there. His was the face and legacy in question; no one else’s. I think, if he was strong, he would have handled the issues with courage and in a manner consistent with his legacy. But he ran out of time. And he taught everyone a leadership lesson that may be debated in text books for awhile.
Dan, thanks for handling this issue in a respectful manner. It is amazing how polarizing it has become.
interesting comment on a leader having a trusted confidante….more interesting here to note that the likelihood of a 85 year old mentor(was 75 years old at the time of this case in question), a tried and true leader, hero to many…..and for all intents a man of an italian culture….the likelihood, was slim to none that this man had his own mentor or confidante….beilieving he may not have needed one…thus far in his career, or even at that era in his career. Was that his downfall? …that by that time in his career…he had not had anyone closely advising him?….had he become, untouchable….
I can imagine that he faced what he faced alone, likely with speaking to his wife only, if that….and did what he believed to be right…inside that moment. The crossroads of him expediting the turning over of alleged information and brainstorming for who he could confide in for insight….was a small window of time….Is it safe to say that this may have been one of the rare times in this leaders career, that he made a drastic moral error….ever…..and perhaps it was his first time to learn how to do it….
Do we call that failed leadership? when its the first time….? Do leaders get a first time?
I do not at all mean to turn a blind eye to the victims in this tragedy…..I am trying to stay focused on the learning from his thought process and actions.
Im learning….and offering some thoughts….
Thank you Dan
Dan, we both felt strong enough about this situation to write about the leadership lessons. Here’s mine: http://www.ldrshipvision.com/blogsite/2012/01/the-painful-lesson-of-joe-paterno/
I’m passionate leadership. Which it wasn’t with this gentleman and this topic.
You are so right. It’s easy to get in over your head. Probably happens every week. Maybe every day for the entrepreneur. But as you note, you can’t bury your head in the sand. Trusted advisors are a godsend. One of them may know what to do or can point you in the right direction.
We all make mistakes. It’s how leaders learn from them that sets them apart from the pack.
One aspect that I still struggle with Dan, absolutely he did many good things over the decades…however, it was not just a Friday, I heard about something, wait Saturday, wait Sunday…now I will pass it along to people who have more expertise…done, back to coaching and football…it was years and years and did he really follow up? These were people in his program, directly or indirectly, people who reported to him. And now for decades to come, how many young people will have to endure scars for the rest of their lives and what legacy do they pass on?
Wrong. His problem was his motivation.
If his motivation was doing the right thing, leadership is easy. Use all of your resources to do the right thing to help a 10 year old boy.
His motivation was protecting the university and his legacy. He does as little as he can get away with, never follows up, and it works short term. However, in the long term, more of the truth will come out, and people will realize he did as much as he could to squelch this story.
Leadership lesson – do the right thing, not the right thing for your legacy, or your legacy will be that you didn’t do the right thing.
I find the explanations helpful.
I find the original statement to be vague and minimizing.
I think it helps us all to know what kind of thoughts go through a person’s head when confronted with a disturbing and unexpected situation. We all hope never to face such a situation, but we can always learn from the mistakes of others.
I believe Joe did exactly the right thing. When something as big as this comes up, I believe I person’s job is to report it to the top level. Those at the top, now that they have the information, are legally and ethically obligated to take action on that information. As a teacher, unless the information is about my immediate superior, I take it to him/her. If it is about him/her, I take it to their superior. My contract and policy statement dictates that I am not supposed to take that information to others…it is to be passed on by that superior.
Maybe Joe Paterno’s statements are a reminder of the risk for any of us of believing if we do the right thing it will result in all gain and no cost. When it seems that’s not possible, we’re at risk of doing some of what we should do, stopping just short of putting ourselves in a position of cost, and telling ourselves we did all we were “supposed” to do.
Dan, I would add the leadership failure of not leaving when it was time to leave and not vibrantly planning for succession – well before all of this came to a pinnacle. His identity became too insular and lacked multi-dimension. A resonant leader is able to bring self-awareness and self-management together to support good decisions. Leaving at the right time is one of those moments and this Coach missed it long ago. Unfortunately, he worked for an institution that lacked competency to manage a timely leadership transition. In the end this coach then had to deal with the sad reality that the core of his leadership failure brought.
Thanks for your ongoing work in supporting us to think deep and wide as we work to support our clients to do good in the world.