Joe Paterno Fired for Absence of Courage

 “We give ourselves license to play a little faster and looser than we normally would.”

Paterno in Happier Days

College football fans always wondered when Joe Paterno’s football career would begin to slow down. The answer came this week with a sudden, whiplash-inducing crash. From USA Today:

A little more than a week after legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno got his record-setting 409th win, the view of his storied, 46-year career suddenly is undergoing a stark revision — tarnished by a child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State involving a former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky.

Paterno initially announced his decision to retire at the end of the year, but that was not soon enough for the school’s board of trustees, who announced late yesterday that college football’s winningest coach was fired, along with Penn State President Graham Spanier.

The following morning brought news of nightime riots, as thousands of Penn State students took to the streets to protest the firing. “Joe Paterno broke no law,” said one rioter. (Curiously, the students decided to smash street lamps and turn over a television news van in order to make the righteous case that no laws were broken.)

Of course, a savvy marketer or university communications officer would be the first the point out that compliance with the law is not the gold standard for protection of your brand reputation. Kevin Burke of The Daily Gamecock explains why:

[Paterno] fulfilled his legal obligation of notifying someone of the allegations involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky… Paterno, a man of noble stature, seemingly accepted the Penn State athletic director’s decision to simply ban the offender from bringing kids to the facility.

Common sense says this was not enough. The fact that Paterno or anyone else with knowledge of the situation neglected to think that true authorities — the police — needed to be involved is baffling.

This is case in point where the law falls short of our obligations to society.

Paterno isn’t the only “good and noble person” who has come up short when it is time to do the right thing, whether in a football program, a corporate boardroom or a congressional meeting room.

Not Just a Matter of Ethics

Paul Danos, the dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, has called to task those in business and other institutions who fail mightily in their societal responsibilities, while never risking a brush with the law. In speaking of bank regulators and CEOs who allowed terrible risks to flourish in our banking and investment institutions, Danos says:

The parties had the power to avert disaster, but they likely lacked the knowledge their positions required, or even a thorough appreciation of the duties they had assumed. Most important, they seemed to lack the courage to speak up when necessary.

Danos points out that educators must go far beyond what is considered traditional ethics, to “delve into the ambiguity and complexity of ethical dilemmas and into the murky personal motivations that often accompany them.”

He suggests students must fully understand the duties and responsibilities attached to leadership, and appreciate the courage it takes for a leader to admit ignorance. Or make a tough decision that might even hurt a colleague or damage your program’s reputation.

A Matter of Perception

Ethics is an urgently pursued topic these days in college curriculums, from business schools to engineering, science and liberal arts. One reason, students are cheating like crazy. Secondly, they don’t seem to stop once they get named CEO, Senator or Head Coach.

Robert Prentice is the chair of the Business, Government and Society Department at McCombs School of Business, and has just launched Ethics Unwrapped, a video curriculum for college and high school teachers.

He points to recent studies that suggest most people innately believe they are more skilled, ethical and generous than their colleagues. Ethical dilemmas often emerge when a person’s self-image is inflated to a point that he or she feels entitled to cut corners.

“Under certain circumstances, we give ourselves license to play a little faster and looser than we normally would,” Prentice said. “And we don’t realize how much the last decision we made can affect the next decisions we make.”

The brain can also shift perspectives of right and wrong, Prentice said, because it has a vested interest in self preservation. Because the mind deflects self-doubt in favor of a more optimistic outlook, people have a natural tendency to be overconfident.

“We know we haven’t been perfect, but we still want to tell a positive story to ourselves about ourselves,” Prentice said.

Perhaps that positive story is what many Paterno fans would like to focus on right now, but reality has a way of kicking its way through the door at the most inconvenient times. As educators try desperately to teach ethical decision making to a rising generation of leaders, Penn State steps forward with a case history that might stimulate class discussion for many years.

More on Paterno’s Inferno: Five Attitudes That Can Drag Your Reputation to Hell.

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