A Painful Leadership Lesson in Trust

Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of college football, the events of this week have been jarring to those of us who have always respected the leadership of Joe Paterno.  Since the only way you would not know about the Penn State situation is if you were on some trans-planetary trip this week, I’m not going to get into the details. But I do want to ask the question…is it fair that a leader who has otherwise been iconic be stripped of all credibility at the end of his career due to an event like the child sex abuse that occurred under his watch?

TrustI will give you this. It is unfortunate. Up until this week, Paterno, was seen as a “By the Book” kind of guy (also the name of his own book). His message has always been one of values and of the need to do things for a purpose greater than one’s own desires. He has presented himself and his players as role models of integrity. As a result, he ends up hoisted on his own petard when it is revealed that he literally acted “by the book” when told of the deviant acts taking place in his own locker room. He reported the incident to the athletic director.


And there’s the catch. We don’t expect our leaders to act by the book. If necessary, we expect them to change the book, to act outside of the book when called upon. After 62 years at Penn State, Paterno defines football for the Nittany Lions. It wasn’t just any locker room…it was “his” locker room. We can’t help but feel that if he truly stood for all that he has said about virtue over the last half-century, he would have not only followed the protocol of the rules of Penn State, but would have followed his own protocol of values above all else.   

The lesson here is a cautionary tale for leaders. We hold you to a higher standard and while that may not be fair, you asked us to do so when you assumed the role of leader. As I’ve written many times, leadership in the end is about trust. I will follow you by choice only when I feel you are dependable and consistent. When your integrity in one area of virtue is questioned, I question your integrity in all other areas. Trust is not compartmentalized. Even if you’re able to maintain your formal authority or title, you lose your ability to influence when you lose the respect of your followers.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply