The Temple Veil Of Power At Penn State

November 11, 2011

There are plenty of reasons for weeping and gnashing of teeth over the scandal unfolding at Penn State University this week. The firing of legendary head football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier does not merit any lamentation.

What Jerry Sandusky did was evil, and he will pay for it.

But good men also do bad things sometimes, and when they do, they too must be held accountable for their poor decisions and actions. Paterno, Spanier, and others at Penn State were intoxicated with power and hubris and contributed to a culture where silence and compliance were valued above justice and courage.

The truth is this is just as much a failure of followership as it is a failure of leadership. I predict we are going to learn that plenty of people knew enough to warrant sounding a louder alarm about Sandusky but failed to do so.

If you have knowledge of abuse in your organization (e.g. sexual harassment) you have a responsibility to report it. If you are a leader and someone has the courage to report abuse to you, you better look into it, especially if the person accused of abusing or harassing others is also in a position of leadership or basic supervision.

It’s your responsibility to protect those you’ve been given the privilege to lead. If you fail at that responsibility, you forfeit the moral authority to lead. You earned your punishment.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below! And please take the time to fill out my new survey!

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Comments (10)

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  1. Bret, it is now holiday training time for me at work, and one thing Gap Inc. makes perfectly clear is that there is a zero tolerance for any harassment.

    Sometimes the new hires roll their eyes as I explain the policy and point out the code of business conduct hotline located throughout the store. I don’t think they realize how valuable an open door policy really is. Thanks for a great post! Miriam

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    It’s critical training, Miriam! But so many workplaces do it but when the rubber hits the road, too often it’s just rhetoric. People like you have to make it the real deal. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Casey O'Looney says:

    Dr. Bret,

    I was hoping you would write about this. I also hope you do a more in-depth podcast or blog about the failures and what should have been done differently. While it might be a diffivult topic, it is a fascinating case study. I am devastated by what happened, but also entrigued by the organizational failure. It seems like everyone did the minimum possible. Was it fear of losing a job or protectionism? I am interested to flow how this plays out and what it means for Penn State’s brand.

    Casey O’Looney

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    It’s a very common organizational failure, Casey. The truth is the same thing could happen here. Folks of course would say “oh no, never, not here!” but the power dynamics and politics that created a culture of silence at PSU exists in many or our organizations and certainly in our large universities. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  3. Gregg says:

    Dr. Bret,

    Totally agree with your post – my question has been, wouldn’t human nature dictate that more (and possibly a LOT more) people knew about these alleged crimes, beyond the handful being reported? And if so, there’s a strong likelihood others who knew won’t come forward, since that would make them complicit in the alleged crimes committed.

    To me, that scenario absolutely dictates that the NCAA or the feds step in and suspend the Penn State football program until a complete investigation is performed, which could take years.

    Yes, it would be devastating to the school (recall SMU from the mid-1980s), especially financially – but consider: How much money did Penn State make from its football program from the late 1990s to today during the alleged cover-up?


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Gregg. I think more people had reason to know something, time will tell. Will also be interesting to watch what the NCAA does. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  4. Dan says:


    Great post. My sense is this is a perfect instance of people confusing formal positions of power with leadership. Anybody can display leadership, although not everyone has a job with a lot of formal power attached to it. It seems to me one of the functions of personal leadership is precisely to buck the trend lines, secret alliances and unwritten rules of formal power when they are in danger of harming innocent people, breaking the human spirit and “wounding society.” Genuine leadership is what transcends such insidious forms of oppression, and it is available to all of us who are willing — to use your very apt metaphor — to pull back the temple veil. For all their apparent position power many in this situation ran from was their own personal leadership power to do the right thing…

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Great thoughts, Dan. I think folks that have have lots of power for so long just lose perspective. If PSU football had not been part of the equation, I think all involved would have recognized that what they had knowledge of was a crime and they needed to contact the police immediately. But self-interest became more important than doing the right thing. Very, very sad but all too common. Thanks, Dan! Bret

  5. Larry Beck says:

    Bret —

    The Penn State case will be an example for years to come on how true, genuine leadership can be forsaken for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, what was displayed was anything but leadership.

    The “moral authority to lead” is a concept that is not universally held and a well made and important point in your post. When leaders choose not to hold themselves to higher standards and rely on positional power rather than relational trust, outcomes like this one are possible. Quoting your April 2009 post “Is your purpose to serve those you have been given the privilege to lead or to be served by your subordinates?” If there ever was a text book example of the latter, the Penn State case is it.

    It takes courage to to step up and say something is wrong. The outrage in this case is that the “wrong” is so outrageous that brings into focus the question you posed: The leaders expected to be served by their subordinates.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Larry! As much as we hate to admit it, Joe Paterno and others had a failure of courage in this case. They were afraid of losing something they loved, their personal reputation and the reputation of their program. In the end, both of those suffered more than if they had done the right thing in the first place. But none of those things really matter; they pale in comparison to the harm done to those children, a harm that Joe Paterno and others could have – should have – stopped. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret