Aftermath of Penn State: 3 Questions You Should be Asking Your Team

First of two parts

The aftermath of the Penn State scandal isn’t going away any time soon.

Personally, I would like to treat the situation as a teachable moment for leaders in all industries and direct the focus of this tragedy towards the lessons which can be learned and most importantly applied.

First and foremost, understand that this is not an issue strictly symptomatic of college sports and universities rather it is an issue facing all organizations and reflects our country’s collective moral compass, which has been progressively deteriorating for years.

Wall Street, Church Street, Main Street, any and every street in the U.S. appear to be littered with more and more people willing to mortgage their conscience in the name of monetary success. Or, at least what they call success.

“Success with Honor”

Let’s play a quick game, I give you the mission statement and you try to name the company it goes with.

  1. “An unblemished record of value, fair-dealing, and high ethical standards that has always been the firm’s hallmark.”
  2. Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.”
  3. Success with Honor.”

Answers: 1. Bernie Madoff’s investment firm; 2. Enron Corporation; 3. Penn State University athletics.

“Success with Honor” is the mission statement of Penn State University’s athletics program. This is the most recent, glaring example why I do not believe in mission statements. We have learned that “success above honor” might be a more appropriate mission statement for them.

For years, the football program under Coach Joe Paterno has been praised for never having been sanctioned by the NCAA for a major violation and having one of the highest graduation percentages for athletes in Division 1 colleges. I ask the question: Why?

Extraordinary – or just doing his job?

Why has the general public placed this individual on a pedestal for simply doing his job? The last time I checked, you are supposed to follow the NCAA bylaws and graduate student-athletes. In a 12-year college coaching career, I never once violated a single minor NCAA rule (much less a major one) and had a 99 percent graduation rate within my lacrosse programs. I also never received an ounce of recognition for doing so and I’m OK with that.

Why? Because it was my job; that is just what a coach is supposed to do — follow the rules and graduate student-athletes.

Paterno didn’t do anything extraordinary in that regard; he just did his job. Sure, he won a couple of National Championships, but given the lack of integrity and oversight within his program, those championships are now tainted.

There are several things leaders can learn from the Penn State scandal. As terrible as tragedies such as the Penn State situation are, they do serve as great reminders and teachable moments about the importance of strong leadership, integrity and the importance of strong core values rather than catchy, meaningless mission statements.

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Any organization whose core values are not aligned with its culture currently are as vulnerable as Penn State was.

3 mission-critical questions you should be asking

Following your core values through your daily activities needs to be on every leader’s agenda right now. Here are three mission critical questions you must have as part of your ongoing discussion with your team members — and you need to start asking them now.

  1. What do we as an organization and you as an individual need to start doing?
  2. What do we/you need to stop doing?
  3. What needs to change around here?

I’m not just talking about policy and procedure for reporting crimes, or violations of ethics and assessing your employee’s comfort level with whistle blowing. I am talking about making sure your entire organization walks the walk of “This is who we are and what we stand for.”  And you, as the leader,  that walk every day.

What sort of message are your people getting?

A client of mine, the CEO of a manufacturing firm, asked me recently, “Is there a manual or book I can assign to my people to read on this stuff?”

My response was quite simply — yes! You are the book your people read. They read that book cover to cover and take notes on it every day.

My question for him was: what sort of message are they extracting from it?

The self-aware leader knows the long term value and impact of his “book.” It will vault him from being a person of success to a person of significance.

Tomorrow: 4 Lessons to Take Away From the Penn State Scandal

John Brubaker is a nationally renowned performance consultant, speaker and author. Using a multidisciplinary approach, he helps organizations and individuals develop their competitive edge. Brubaker is the author of The Coach Approach: Success Strategies Out Of The Locker Room Into The Board Room, and co-author of the book Leadership: Helping Others To Succeed. He's also the host of Maximum Success: The Coach Bru Show on WWZN AM 1510 in Boston. Contact him at


4 Comments on “Aftermath of Penn State: 3 Questions You Should be Asking Your Team

  1. I agree with John,  I am a Penn State grad from too many years ago.

    This was a failure of leadership.  The football program was no doubt overly protected by JoePa but it was run in accord with NCAA rules.

    But there were 4 people — leaders — who apparently failed the University and society.  The former President claims he’s innocent but if the reports are true I hold him more accountable than anyone.  The orhers were serving their own narrow interests.

    And because of their failure now thousands of people from local merchants to incoming students will be punished.

  2. Thank you for your feedback Howard, I agree it was a total failure of leadership. I continue to be astounded that the President of the NCAA did not specifically comment directly on those four individuals complete failure of leadership in his announcement of the NCAA sanctions yesterday.  There are valuable lessons for all institutions and organizations from this tragedy, stay tuned for tomorrow’s article on that very subject…

  3. I heard an NPR piece a while ago about Penn State’s well known “party school” culture.  Excessive drinking, among other things, was condoned by the school’s leadership. The article presented a picture of a culture that was extolled by the students and their parents and passively supported by the leadership. I recall thinking that eventually the school would experience a huge crash. Obviously, these abuse crimes are far more egregious than excessive drinking, but it seems as though the the school’s leadership had a long track record of looking the other way.

    1. Caroline, thank you for sharing that info from NPR.  I wrote in part 2 of my article today that one of the lessons is about choosing the harder right over the easier wrong.  Sounds like the PSU administration chose yet another easier wrong in tolerating the “party school” culture. Thanks again.

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