The crisis at Penn State involving the sexual predation of young boys by a football coach brings a sad end to the career of Joe Paterno. While there is really nothing to say in defense of the assistant coach who is alleged to have commit these acts of perversion. I believe we can describe them this way. As bad as it is, the greater crisis is one of leadership.
As I read and watched the coverage of this tragic situation, I can understand how all of this came to pass. I believe that it is perfectly explanable, though not excuseable.
While I know most people are reviled by the thought of a middle age man having sex with a 10 year boy, most people don't know what to do about it when confronted with the situation. The graduate assistant's actions is what most people who have never had any training in sexual boundaries within organizations would do. Go to your boss.
Until I became a Boy Scout leader, I did not know that any accusation of sexual abuse between an adult and a minor is required by law to be immediately communicated to law enforcement. Prior to going through Youth Protection Training with the Boy Scouts, my understanding was that this is a matter for social services, not the police.
Joe Paterno, the Athletic Director and President Gordon Spanier should have know this. Either they didn't or if they did, they ignored it.
Once they discovered what this former coach had done, they should have addressed it directly with the families involved, and restricted the coach from any contact with the university, its programs and personnel. This would be the case even if the first step is to contact law enforcement.
They should have also disclosed to the public the situation, and demonstrated a no tolerance position regarding sexual abuse. If they had taken these simple steps, Joe Paterno would be coaching his team this weekend.
The Real Leadership Problem
The problem though is that it seems that these Penn State officials were living in a bubble. Their perception of what they could manage was faulty. This is often the result of a leadership culture of insularity, born of arrogance and fear. Yes, both arrogance and fear. The arrogance that I can handle this, and the fear of being found wanting as a leader.
The Penn State Board of Trustees are the ultimate authority in this matter. Their governance of the university is insufficient. I believe that they have now discovered this. Their actions last night to fire Joe Paterno and president, Gordon Spanier were the right ones. A review of the Board of Trustees actions over the past decade is also needed to determine how a situation like this could have gone unaddressed.
Organizational Leaders are Moral Leaders
Here's the reality that we must all face. Being an able administrator does not mean you are a paragon of moral credibility.
Your character as a human being matters in the conduct of your service as a leader. If you think you can finesse the moral side of leadership, then you are mistaken.
Today, you should assume that nothing is hidden. Everything will be found out.That honesty and integrity are not marketing slogans, but personal performance strategies.
When confronted with a situation like this one at Penn State, you will be judged as much for the process you take to resolution as for the resolution itself. Therefore, it is best to develop processes of openness, integrity, fairness and action. If you are the Executive Director, Owner or CEO of an organization, then you need to begin right away to put into place procedures for managing this kind of situation. If you have them, review their appropriatness in light of this Penn State debacle.
It is also important that no one person be treated as more important than the integrity of the institution. After over 60 years of involvement in the world of Penn State, Joe Paterno is fired by a phone call, ending his tenure as the winningest college football coach. Not the way anyone thought his tenure would end like this.
It is a sad day in Happy Valley. They will recover. A price will be paid for the serious errors in judgment by the Penn State leadership. And we each have had the opportunity to learn that to separate ethical responsibility from leadership is a course that leads to destruction.