On Penn State and Leadership

I was having dinner with my family last weekend, and we got to talking about the tragic events at Penn State. My 14-year-old son firmly expressed his opinion. He essentially explained that Joe Paterno should have been allowed to coach through the rest of the season. During the conversation he mentioned things like, “greatest coach ever,” and “He’s done so much for Penn State” and “He made one mistake. It shouldn’t destroy everything.” I was surprised.

I shouldn’t have been. There are lots of people that feel as he does. Students at the college demonstrating in support of Coach Paterno, blog posts from Penn State alums, and football fans across the country have all vocalized their support for him and their outrage at his firing.

There are a lot of folks that feel that Joe Paterno has been mistreated or the consequences have not been meted out fairly. Their comments, include things like, “Shouldn’t we focus on Jerry Sandusky?” and “What about all the others? Why are you picking on Joe Paterno?” It got me thinking. Can someone be important enough or good enough or busy enough to be forgiven without consequences for failing to do the right thing?

My response is, maybe Coach Paterno has been mistreated and maybe the consequences haven’t been meted out fairly. You know what? Tough. Life is not fair.

Leaders enjoy a lot of benefits. Some have suggested that Joe Paterno was the most powerful man at Penn State or even in the entire state of Pennsylvania. He was certainly respected, loved, admired, and followed. He earned his reputation through hard work, passion, love of the game and his players, and a solid ethical foundation. And he received many benefits, tangible and intangible, from his efforts. His assistant coaches did not receive comparable benefits, despite the fact that they likely worked very hard. Tough. Life is not fair. Joe Paterno was the leader so he earned the greatest benefits.

Leaders also have a lot of responsibility. They carry many loads, make many decisions, and face the consequences of these decisions. This is why we feel it is acceptable to compensate them far beyond others. We choose these people as leaders because we believe they have the ability to be successful. And like all of us, their decisions have consequences. Sometimes their consequences are greater because their role as leader makes their decisions more important. Sometimes it’s because their role makes them a target. Either way, they face outcomes just like we do, and sometimes they carry the lion’s share of the consequences. Tough. Life is not fair. Joe Paterno is the leader so he received the greatest consequences.

In the end, leader or not, all of our actions have consequences, have outcomes, and these are not always in our control. Sometimes we get lucky and a mistake causes no harm or there are no consequences. We accept this outcome happily or perhaps with relief. We do not ask to be punished. Other times the same mistake has a big impact and the consequences are unexpected and severe. It’s not always fair, but we have to face these outcomes just the same, whether our mistakes are intentional or not. We say we want justice, but do we really? Do we really want everything… EVERYTHING … to be fair?

Despite all this tragedy, I still think that all is not lost here. Coach Paterno himself has said he has regrets. This gives me hope. He has an opportunity to continue to lead and accept the painful consequences of his actions. The source of his leadership is not solely in the title he held, but lies in his actions. His decisions from this moment onward will teach my son and all who love Penn State how we should remember him.

John F. Kennedy tells us, “Our privileges can be no greater than our obligations.” In the end, even the best of us are flawed, but when we err, we can still gracefully accept the consequences of our mistakes, even if they’re not always fair. We can make whatever amends are possible and work to ensure that our mistakes can never happen again. That’s not justice, but it’s what great leaders do. It’s what great people do.