Independent Thinking Blog

4 Leadership Lessons from the Penn State Scandal

It’s impossible to ignore what happened at Penn State. Which is ironic since Penn State officials, impossibly, chose to ignore what was happening.

This was a massive failure on many levels.

Here are four leadership lessons:

1. Leadership is about making tough decisions. The president of the university didn’t. Joe Paterno didn’t. But the Board of Trustees did, taking quick action once the scandal broke to start to clean house and appoint a special committee to investigate how things went so wrong.

2. Dissent should be encouraged. I don’t know this, but it certainly appears that no one involved with the Penn State football program made a move without consulting Paterno first. Because otherwise I can’t for the life of me understand why a 28-year-old’s first thought after witnessing an assault wouldn’t be to call 9-1-1. You can’t be a good leader if you don’t let people act independently–and disagree with you.

3. Bubbles are bad for business. Tracee Hamilton wrote a terrific column for the Washington Post in which she said in part:

If [Paterno] really loved Penn State as much as he professed, he’d have fallen on his own sword a lot sooner, rather than letting the situation on campus reach a boiling point while trying to engineer his own retirement… If he wanted to save his school and his program and even his friend from the firestorm engulfing them all now, all he had to do was pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1. Three digits.


Paterno was the definition of a “big man on campus.” The problem with bubbles is that you only talk to friends (see #2) and see what you want to see. And you think you can control everything.

4. The letter of the law is not enough. You can’t lead by technicality. The argument that (indicted and/or fired) Penn State officials have tried to make is that they did what they were legally obligated to do. That might save Joe Paterno from criminal liability, but it certainly doesn’t save him from moral accountability.

What leadership lessons learned would you add?

Photo by Russell James Smith (Flickr).

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