In the aftermath of the shocking events Wednesday at Penn State—which included the resignation and, later, ouster of its legendary football coach Joe Paterno, the firing of its long-standing and highly regarded president, and even student riots on the campus—it’s worth asking the following question: Who showed true leadership?
The sad reality: No one.
We can start with athletic director Tim Curley and university administrator Gary Schultz, who not only allegedly failed to report the alleged sexual abuse of small children by former Penn State offensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky to the police, but, a grand jury report claims, made false statements under oath about it. There was little question that when they resigned Monday, it was the right thing to do.
Then of course, there was the university’s president, Graham Spanier, who a grand jury report said not only was made aware of the incident in Penn State’s locker room, but testified that he approved of Curley’s approach to the matter. To make matters worse, he pledged his “unconditional support” to Curley and Schultz just two days before the men would resign, making plain the university’s deification of its football program.
Even Joe Paterno, the man whose “grand experiment” may have produced a clean football program in the eyes of the NCAA—he never once was accused of breaking the rules in 46 seasons—failed miserably when it came to passing this leadership test. While he may have reported the hideous news his graduate assistant told him up the chain, he apparently never went to the police, never confronted Sandusky, and never followed up on the despicable incident again. What’s more, when it became apparent he had to resign, he tried to stay on for the rest of the season rather than offering to bow out immediately.
But wait, some might say. What about the board of trustees, who did the right thing in cleaning house, overruling Paterno’s legions of fans and Spanier’s academic record in favor of a clean slate to set the university on the right path? They may have done the best thing in this moment, but they share part of the blame too. The board of trustees may have had no knowledge of what Jerry Sandusky was doing in the team’s showers with children. But it allowed and, consciously or not, surely played a role in fostering a culture that held football on a pedestal—one so high that allegations as hideous of these were allegedly swept under the rug.
Leadership is, of course, what one does when faced with an ethical dilemma, or a tough decision, or actions that may hurt your institution but are the right thing for the greater good. But it is also the ability to constantly gut check an organization’s culture and proactively redirect an institution when it gets on the wrong path. Great leaders don’t just respond the right way when presented with a crisis—though they do, and Penn State’s leaders didn’t here. They also do everything they can to constantly make sure values haven’t gotten so far out of whack that such crises happen in the first place.
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