JoePa’s Leadership Faux Pas
***Special Why Lead Now Blog Article
As a Central Pennsylvania native, raised among the peaceful valleys that are nestled within the beautiful rolling Appalachian Mountains, there was always the notion of a glorious kingdom that lay just beyond the northern range of the Cumberland Valley. A place where all the boys in my neighborhood recognized as Camelot—let by King Author himself and his band of Knights in shining armor.
Of course we called it Penn State football and its glorious leader was a man named JoePa—who led his mighty warriors on to the field of battle every autumn Saturday in simple Blue and White throw back football uniforms. He was a mythological figure throughout the entire region.
For over four decades, since my birth, one man has remained a constant symbol of timeless honor, connecting me back to what seemed to be an eternal youth. Today that age of innocence has come to an end. Camelot has fallen and King Arthur has gone down with it as the University’s image smolders in the court of public opinion.
As a father and a coach of youth sports, as well a devoted thinker on the practices of leadership, I am suddenly forced to confront my own romantic notions of that ideal world I once believed in as a boy. The dark clouds of reality that have stormed across The Happy Valley now revel an epic institutional failure, and the mythological figure at the center of it, who reigned over it for nearly half a century, is now faced with a bitter end.
Penn State football, the great University it represents, and the entire nation, is now left with the task of making some sense of the terrible abuses of power and innocence that took place on it’s campus within the shadows of one of the most storied programs in American sports.
It would be premature to make any assumptions about the necessary outcomes of such a horrible situation. But all legality aside, we would be stuck in nostalgia if we were to overlook the leadership lessons that are arising from the smoldering rubble of a fallen dynasty.
Deal with Conflict Directly
The one thing we have learned since childhood is, the longer we wait to deal with a crisis, the worse it always gets. This is an even a greater truth for leaders. Joe Paterno and Penn State brass had nearly a decade to deal with this issue, and not only rid the source of the issue from the institution, but take the source to higher levels of authority, beyond the means of the University’s by laws and policies. This was not only a failure of leadership on the part of Joe Paterno; it was a failure at nearly every leadership level of the institution.
When organizations ignore conflict, and don’t seek to resolve it through proper resources and reasoned accountability at every level, with fair justice, they under mind the very purpose for existing. Having the means to deal with conflict, on a personal or professional level, is an essential part of growing and maturing into excellence as an individual and an organization.
The days of brushing issues under the rug, particularly for leadership figures as popular and public as Joe Paterno, is a thing of the past. It’s old school thinking and a naïve approach to solving tough issues in a technology driven culture that has the instantaneous ability to publish thoughts and opinions to a world wide audience, as well as access information at anytime—driven relentlessly by a 24-7 multi-level news cycle.
Hail to the Chief
Another glaring lesson from the Penn State crisis is the absolute power Joe Paterno had at the University and throughout the region. A grand illusion, all be it a romantic one, of American culture is the notion of the Commander in Chief—the central figure that is the face of an organization or institution, a charismatic leader at the head of a mighty organization leading the masses to glory.
But even this notion is a bit mythological, because the very foundation of American culture was based on a rejection of this type of idea—that one man has all the power. The founding brothers of the United States of America rejected the tyranny of a king, so much so, the drafted timeless documents that protected against this taking place in a new world—the balance of power in the branches of government—not too mention term limits for the Commander in Chief.
Joe Paterno has been the face of Penn State for over four decades. Paterno was the chief architect of a multi-million dollar revenue resource for the institution and rose to preeminent power at Pennsylvania State University because of it. But this type of great charismatic, larger than life leader can be dangerous for any organization or culture.
A balance of power through a plurality of leadership can help stabilize the longevity and production of an organization and stimulate more empowerment down through the ranks, ultimately generating more productivity and ownership of the organization from the bottom up.
This is even truer in today’s flatter world, leveled out by knowledge and instant access to information through technology. People at all levels of an organization need to be empowered; not only do their jobs in the most effective way possible, but to also have no fear to make the right decisions and resolve disruptive behaviors head on within the organization.
There are so many lessons to ponder in this heartbreaking saga that has exploded in Central Pennsylvania and shaken the American sports scene the past week. But this moment is too important in American history to allow our selves to ignore and grow from—especially as parents, coaches, and leaders. Today, I’m left trying to answer my 10 year-old son’s question, “What happened?” My only answer, “A tragedy.” And it is a tragedy that could have, and should have been avoided through effective leadership throughout the entire institution. Instead, lives have been shattered and a noble brand tarnished—a legend has fallen and innocence has been lost in a once happy kingdom.
Jason Diamond Arnold
Co-author of Situational Self Leadership in Action