Leaders and Accountability in the Wake of the Penn State Scandal

“When you are the top person in your profession, even if you do everything right, you can have a bad day that brings it all down,” said Dr. Jack Stark, a psychologist who has counseled professional athletes and worked with Fortune 500 company leaders.

Joe Paterno, 84, was the longest-serving and winningest coach in NCAA Division I football until his career came to a screeching halt Nov. 9, 2011, when he was fired by the Penn State board of trustees in connection with the scandal involving former coach Jerry Sandusky, who has been accused of sexually abusing young boys.

Nearly up until the moment of his firing, Paterno was revered by students, players and alumni not only for his many years of coaching but also for melding academics and athletics in his “Grand Experiment,” which resulted in Penn State athletes graduating at higher rates than all other schools. “Joe Pa” was the much-loved symbol of Penn State football, even though poor health had kept him off the field in recent games.

Maybe that’s why students rioted in the streets after he was fired when it came to light that he did not report to police, nine years ago, that Sandusky had assaulted a child. Students flipped a media van and destroyed property in their rage over Paterno’s dismissal.

But maybe what also fueled their emotions was disappointment in this deified coach. Joe Pa was an upstanding, vocal, respected, much-lauded figure. In their eyes, he could do no wrong—except calling the wrong play from the press box.

“But with Paterno, it’s not what he did. It’s what he didn’t do,” Stark said.

In 2002, when his graduate assistant Mike McQueary told him about witnessing an assistant coach sexually assault a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State locker room, Paterno reported the incident to his superior, the university’s athletic director. That may be all that was required of him as a university employee.

However, as a much-loved public figure, he had a responsibility—and people expected him—to take charge of the situation. At least to tell the police. To follow up when university officials simply took away Sandusky’s locker room keys but didn’t report the assault to authorities.

Highly respected leaders of any organization have the same expectations placed on their shoulders. They are held to a higher standard of accountability. And they will fall further and faster than others who aren’t as well-known. Paterno was on course to be remembered as one of the most successful college football coaches of all time. Now he’ll be remembered for his many successes—and one huge failure.

Read the full story here on the SHRM website’s Business Leadership section.

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