When the Lessons of Leadership Are Most Painful

By Jim Struck, Leadership Vision, LLC

I grew up in the home of Penn State graduates.  The first college football game I ever attended was Pitt versus Penn State, back in the day when it was a rivalry.  My father was raised in State College, PA, home of Penn State University.  His father taught at Penn State.  I spent a lot of time on the Penn State campus as a boy.  Joe Paterno was a revered man in my house.  He was a leader of men.  He was successful.

I have spent the vast majority of my adult years in Indiana, not Pennsylvania.  While it isn’t hard to be a Penn State fan in Indiana, there aren’t an abundant number.  It was easy to root for PSU and Paterno because they were successful and they did it the right way.  Joe expected his boys to attend class and graduate.

There are a handful of coaches/leaders who lead by example, who respect  who they are , who they work for, and the game that is their labor of love.  They bring/brought honor to all of those things by doing the right thing, by being people of high character and integrity.  They took seriously their role and their duty to the athletes they were entrusted with.  You could see year after year the kids who came out of the top programs represented themselves and their alma mater well.

The parallel of great leadership in sports, and great leadership in business is the same.  The foundation begins with the nature of the top leader.  If they are people of high character, grounded in doing what is right in all circumstances, bringing the best out of their people, using their influence to create an atmosphere where their people were motivated to do their very best, then you saw consistent success.  They were centers of excellence.

There are times, for a variety of reasons, that chinks develop in the armor of honor, integrity, and high character.  Sometimes these chinks are a response to external pressures .  The demands to compete and be successful year after year gets interpreted “at all cost.”  When we begin to sacrifice pieces of who we are, what is right, in order to keep up our image, or the imagine of our company or program we often make choices that are wrong.  Some of these poor choices end up playing out in a very public way to the ruin of the person, the program , or the organization (i.e., Enron, John Edwards, Bernie Madoff, and numerous others).

Sometimes, the ugly forces at work are internal.  Flaws in our being that have been kept hidden begin to work their way to the surface, and once again play out in a very public way.  Such was the case with Jerry Sandusky.

The great dichotomy is that Joe Paterno represented all that is good in college athletics.  He did this over an unprecedented period of time (over 60 years).  The consistency of leadership and excellence was unmatched, anywhere.  In a moment of poor judgment or ignorance Joe could/did not end the horror and betrayal of Jerry Sandusky, and it cost him his job, and at least some of his stature.  And he isn’t alone.  As soon as we think that we are above __________, we have taken the first step to our ruin.

It is a great and painful lesson.  When we put on the mantle of leadership we are called upon to do the right thing…all of the time.   Regardless of our track record of success, a moment of poor judgment, a failure to step up the way we need to, can cost us everything.  Most of the time, our lack of judgment, ignorance, inability to deal in a moment, are just moments.  Moments that may carry some reprimand, show up in a performance review under “opportunity for improvement”, cost us some stature, and maybe cost us some money.  Sometimes those moments have such harsh consequences they can seem unfair.  Ask the victims of the sexual abuse.  Ask the Paterno family.  Ask other leadership at Penn State.  These moments tore down lives and tore down communities.  In the end, it cost a great man his life.

Whether it was Bernie Madoff or John Edwards my reaction is generally the same, anger, disappointment, and sadness for the gifts that are wasted.  In Joe Paterno’s case my reaction is the same, but far more personal.  The sadness is far greater and will last much longer.

In time, I, and others, will be able to put a perspective on the end to Joe’s career that will return a little more luster to who he was, and what he accomplished.  He was a great man.  In the meantime, I intimately understand why, as leaders, we are held accountable for what our people do, and the painful leadership lessons.  I hope that out of this comes a little more courage to call out bad behavior at the time so the havoc endured is on a much smaller scale.