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.

Two failures:

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:

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.”

Leadership lessons:

  1. Leaders get in over their heads. Expect it.
  2. Say what you know even if you don’t know what to do.
  3. Say what you know privately. Avoid hysteria and grandstanding.
  4. Follow through, privately.
  5. Follow through persistently.
  6. 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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