Loyalty Unchecked Leads to Headaches and Heartache

January 23, 2012 - by: Dan Oswald 5 COMMENTS

Legendary college football coach Joe Paterno died on Sunday after a battle with lung cancer. But by many accounts, some people who knew him well say the 85-year-old died of a broken heart. I think Joe Paterno’s career at Penn State University is worth closer examination because there are lessons for employers and employees alike.

Joe Paterno spent his entire career at Penn State University, coming to the school as an assistant coach in 1950. That’s not a typo — 1950. That’s 62 years ago. I’d be willing to wager that only a small minority of those reading this were working full-time in 1950. After 15 years as an assistant, Paterno was named head coach in 1966 — the same year I was born. And he spent the next 46 years winning football games and impacting the lives of young men. In that span he chalked up 409 wins, more than any coach in NCAA football history.

But Paterno was also known for promoting a balance between collegiate academics and athletics. His players graduated at a rate of 74 percent — 19 points above the national average. And Paterno was never accused of any NCAA rules violations. What’s more, he and his wife donated more than $4 million to the university for scholarships and to build a library on campus. In a world of college athletics where so much is wrong, Paterno was seen as a man who did things right.

That is until long-time Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with 40 counts of child sexual abuse. The abuse allegedly took place over a 15-year period, some of it in Penn State athletic facilities. One incident in 2002, in which a football graduate assistant allegedly walked in on Sandusky assaulting a young boy in the showers of the football building, became Paterno’s undoing.

According to grand jury testimony, the graduate assistant told Paterno what he had seen. Paterno insisted that he was told only of “inappropriate behavior” and that he notified campus officials who should deal with it.

In light of the scandal involving Paterno’s former long-time assistant and believing that he had not done enough, Penn State’s Board of Regents fired the coach with a phone call. Of the entire Sandusky incident, Paterno said, “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. I wish I had done more.”

It’s a tragic story. But there are lessons about loyalty in it from which we can all learn.

Loyalty and longevity are great, but you must be aware of the potential downside. Paterno spent 61 years at one institution building a great reputation and a cult-like following. His immense popularity with Penn State alumni and fans gave him an incredible amount of power. Paterno was that employee who is so valuable and popular that management begins to believe he is “untouchable.” In many ways, his actions go unchecked until there’s a problem and then management finds it difficult to act fearing the repercussions. Much of the problem in this situation was that Joe Paterno became bigger than Penn State, and that just can’t happen.  No employee can be bigger than the institution.

Loyalty can be blind. I don’t know what Joe Paterno knew about Jerry Sandusky’s alleged actions, but it certainly appears that he knew something and didn’t do enough about it. He admitted that when he said, “I wish I had done more.” Paterno and Sandusky spent 15 years together. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that someone close to you is capable of doing bad things. Maybe it’s because you see the good they do or maybe it’s because admitting it would mean you failed to be a good judge of character, but managers must be vigilant about assessing those who work for them and not ignore the signs of problems. Paterno did, and it cost him his job and, in many ways, his reputation.

Loyalty can make for hard decisions, but you need to handle them the right way. The Penn State Board of Regents fired Joe Paterno, a decision that many thought was the right thing to do. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision to make about a man who had done so much for the university. But they did it with a phone call. Sixty-one years of dedication to one institution and they don’t have the courtesy to meet with him face to face. Again, I don’t know the facts surrounding the firing, but it appears to be a very cowardly way to end a relationship that lasted as long as this one had.

Joe Paterno dedicated his life to Penn State University, and his dedication and loyalty may have cost him his life. Less than three months after being fired by the university, Paterno died — many of those close to him said he died of a broken heart. Loyalty to an organization and loyalty to an employee are both wonderful, admirable things, but left unchecked they can lead to problems all too apparent in the relationship between Paterno, Sandusky, and Penn State University.

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5 COMMENTS

1 c huddleston
10:17:15, 27/01/12

It is easy for someone on the outside to say that JoePa did not handle this sexual abuse allegation appropriately. But I can think of several situations where I or some other employee reported a fairly serious breach of rules to the proper authority, were told it would be handled and did not find out that nothing was done until a long time later. JoePa’s job was to coach football. Should he have followed up when he did not see any action – maybe?? But maybe he made the assumption that the report was investigated and found to be untrue. JoePa was a “higher up” but not charged with investigating complaints of sex abuse. I truly believe Penn State handled this whole situation wrong and made JoePa the fall guy for something that was simply not his fault. And I’m sure he died an unhappy man. By the way, I’m not a Penn State alum or fan – am actually a fan of another Big Ten university. But when you have the Ohio States, Michigans and Michigan States breaking every rule in the book, it is real hard to fault JoePa for a situation that should have been taken care of by his bosses.

2 Joel Mitchum
11:02:51, 27/01/12

I feel that this is one of the most illdirecterd analogies that I have ever read or heard.To say that loyalty should not be rewarded with respect is very disturbing to me. While neither you nor I know what Joe Paterno felt, I think that the lack of respect shown during this tragic time was overwhelming. He had dedicated his life to helping this University be successful in many ways and to be fired by telephone without even a meeting or discussion with him is unbeleivable.

3 Rosemarie from Michigan
11:50:40, 27/01/12

Excellent article Dan.

When I was growing up, I learned from my dad that loyalty to a company means putting corporate objectives above our selfish wants, requiring sometimes long hours, delayed vacations, after hours work and honest reporting but returned a comfortable life style, paid time off, fully covered medical insurance and a lifetime pension to respectably retire after 20 years of service. Loyalty was mutual. Over the decades, corporate loyalty eroded to a profit at any cost model, rewarding employees with huge salaries and bonuses for increasing the bottom line, no matter how that was achieved. Employees responded in kind, causing huge recruitment and training costs affecting elaborate operational models and questionable criteria.

It seems clear Penn State’s reporting system was intentionally designed to give the appearance of integrity without consistent application of disciplinary procedures – and it eventually came back to taint their reputation. Joe found out the hard way that he was only important to the organization’s bottom line – and it killed him.

Maybe it is time for us to find a way to measure more than short term profits in evaluating organizational success including intangibles such as integrity (beyond dollars spent on violations and in law suits), quality (beyond rework hours and recalls), employee/consumer satisfaction (beyond superficial surveys), value to society (beyond number of dollars donated to charity) and long term implications of corporate decisions.

4 Dan Oswald
15:11:14, 06/02/12

I don’t have any more insight into this issue than most, but I have my opinions. So to clarify my positions:

I believe that Joe Paterno admitted that he could have done more regarding the sexual abuse accusations. In fact, he was quoted saying exactly that.

I never said that loyalty shouldn’t be rewarded with respect. In fact, the word respect never comes up in this piece.

I believe loyalty can’t be blind. Just because someone is loyal doesn’t mean that they don’t make mistakes. And when they do make mistakes you need to be willing to deal with them appropriately.

I believe that Penn State was wrong in firing Paterno with a phone call and said as much. In fact, I called it cowardly.

5 Molly
10:26:58, 10/02/12

Just to be clear, it was LUNG CANCER and complications from LUNG CANCER treatment that killed Joe Paterno. If you’ve ever cared for someone with that horrible disease through the brutalities of chemotherapy and radiation, you’ll understand that. Coach Paterno lived a long life, had a huge, adoring family, and through decades of service to the university, earned the love and respect of millions of students and alumnae. There’s nothing romantic about cancer. Let the lesson of JoePa’s death be that lung cancer is the most preventable form of cancer & inspire people to quit smoking, or never start smoking. Let not the great tragedy of JoePa’s life be that he died in the wake of this scandal, but that he was robbed of years in peaceful retirement with his wife and family by an incideous and brutal preventable disease.

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