Leadership Lessons from Joe Paterno and Penn State

This Joe Paterno and Penn State leadership child molestation cover up is sickening.

What’s even worse is that some of it could have been easily avoided. The pain and shame so many feel right now was unnecessary.

It’s clear that some leaders at Penn State covered up disturbing crimes happening on their campus. I won’t point fingers at anyone in particular, but two people are now facing criminal charges. Others are facing moral charges from thousands of people who are wondering why they didn’t do more. Say more.

Care more.

Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking, not just the “legal minimum”. It means calling the cops when something like this happens, not just calling your boss.

I understand this would have been a major distraction and black eye for their successful football program at the time, but now it may be a crippling blow.

Leaders can work hard to achieve record success, but if they allow unethical behavior on their watch, it may all mean nothing. Regardless of records, legends, or stellar reputations, all leaders will fall when moral issues like this are ignored. There is more to life. There is more to success.  Leadership without honor is hollow.

Leaders must have their success and honor too.

“Success with Honor” is Penn State’s motto. Now they have neither.

Have an honorable night,


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Published by Aaron Biebert

I'm a director, film/video exec producer, leader & 8pm Warrior. I am passionately chasing my goals at all times. I'm listening. Let's talk!

16 comments on “Leadership Lessons from Joe Paterno and Penn State”

  1. Boy was this ever bad. Heart goes out to all the kids affected. Apalling that Penn St. students would rebel on campus over this. Maybe they just don’t get it…

  2. “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking.” I love that. That’s how I would define it.

    And now, if you’ll forgive the cliché, it takes years to build trust but a second to destroy it. I find it hard to understand Joe Pa’s conduct.

    1. John, I think this is the perfect case of how it only takes a second to destroy what took years to build. It’s a disaster.

      I too don’t understand it. It baffles me.

      I’m hoping I never understand.

  3. Aaron, your ever word speaks my thoughts on this matter. What on earth? Why kind of a culture can we be living in where so many people in leadership positions fail to do the right thing, when the right thing is so patently clear!? Any person who witnesses an adult harming a child has a moral obligation to make sure it stops. Any person who is told of such a thing has a moral obligation to make sure the authorities investigate. Is that a hard concept? Is there some gray aspect to this situation that I fail to appreciate?

    Again and again, be it in a corporate or personal setting, we’re seeing our heroes taken down because they failed to act decisively, often for fear of losing some advantage, as you mention in this post. And as you also mention, the fallout once the truth comes out is always much worse down the line than it would have been with speedy action.

    Outstanding post my friend. Again!

    1. Ted, I don’t think I’ll ever understand. I’m hoping I never do.

      It’s sad when our heroes fall covering up crimes they didn’t even commit. It’s truly baffling.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion and for your generous compliments. It’s an honor to have you here Ted.

  4. Your post reminds me of some good advice. Thank you, Aaron.

    Leadership is a gift given by those who follow.

    That’s what General Mark Welsh, Commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, says. General Welsh gave a speech about what leadership is about at the Air Force Academy. The video is here.


    General Welsh speaks about leadership through stories and slides. He tells about the horror of killing and the fact that it has to be done. He tells us that the enemies that are killed by smart bombs are fathers, sons, and brothers too.

    General Welsh tells us about the people who serve in the Air Force. About the people the made a difference. About the people that are making a difference.

    Leaders are all about their credibility. Leaders look out for their people and they do what they say they are going to do – especially when it’s about taking care of their people. They look after the people that count on them. That doesn’t mean that leaders lie or cover up for this person or that as Aaron points out. Leaders have to keep their people on the up and up – that’s the kind of winning that counts most of all. If they can’t do that, they have no credibility.

    Leaders pay attention to the details. General Welsh tells about a jet fighter pilot that died when he missed a zero point two of a second decision to pull up. Details matter.

    Leaders know their people’s stories. You can’t look out for your people (and their families) if you don’t know their story.

    General Welsh concludes:

    “Leadership is a gift. It’s given by those who follow. But you have to be worthy of it.”

    1. Stan, I watched that video. Powerful stuff!

      I think it makes a great point of talking about credibility. Unfortunately, the former leaders of Penn State don’t have any, so it makes sense they were relieved of their duties.

      Leadership is a gift. I like that.

      Thanks Stan!

  5. Like the mortgage industry, which ignored (and even encouraged) suspect lending practices, leadership at Penn State favored “success” over honest action. In so doing, Penn State leaders severely damaged the reputation of a proud university, just as many financial company leaders damaged,or destroyed, their firms.

    Worth keeping in mind is the fact that the “crippling blow” is not limited to the perpetrators. Truly sad is the hurt of innocent victims, be they responsible homeowners/investors or worse, victimized children.

    Hopefully this can serve as a wake-up call and help us recognize the importance of honesty and ethics, in business and life.

    Thanks for a great post.

    1. Marie, I agree that there are many applications for this lesson and so many examples of where it leaders failed to do what was morally right.

      No one wins when honor and integrity is thrown out the door. I doubt these leaders sleep well at night.

      It’s a lose-lose situation.

      Thanks for the insight Marie!

  6. The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing. – Albert Einstein

    Thanks for a thoughtful piece.

  7. “We are (pause) Penn State” – that’s our anthem. You hear that a lot – the drunker kids get – on PSU home game weekends in Happy Valley, or University Park, PA. That was me, too.

    I am a Penn State grad, but PSU kids are a disgrace, rioting over (head coach) Joe Paterno getting fired. The selfish, arrogant son-of-a-bitch could have called the cops when he learned his asst. coach coach was abusing boys. He even recognized his culpability when he attempted to dodge the dismissal bullet and noted how he “should have one more.” He was willing to look the other way when he needed that assistant coach, and needed everything in his arsenal to keep the PSU football team on top.

    People don’t seem to get that. Or, that while the guy might have been a good asst. coach, keeping him away from the boys, some as young as ten, that he was sexually abusing always mattered more than winning football games.

    PSU is my alma mater, but I am just sick over how people don’t seem to understand what matters any more…

    1. Saul, if it’s any consolation, I don’t think any less of Penn State grads. This is a breakdown in leadership. The kids were just being stupid.

      Interesting thoughts on him needing this Sandusky guy. I never put two and two together. Some have suggested that Paterno was bought off possibly?

      Thanks for speaking up and representing PSU grads that good and decent people.

      1. No, Aaron, its me, a Penn State grad – thinking less of Penn State students and tailgaters (football game fans) overturning news vans and rioting over the firing of Joe Paterno. He knew what was going on, but didn’t want to mess with the “winning team formula” – and thus, kept Sandusky.
        Thanks for putting the issue to light on your blog, Aaron.

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