An abuse of power? Lessons from Penn State

Joe Paterno stands on the field before Penn State's NCAA college football game against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., Oct. 22, 2011.
AP Photo

COMMENTARY Who decides when the CEO or leader must go?  That is a question that Penn State has faced for at least a decade in its decision about how long Joe Paterno should remain as its head football coach. Today, in the wake of a horrific child abuse scandal, the answer is clear: it is now! Paterno and the university president were firedlate Wednesday.

Paterno followed the letter of the law in disclosing an allegation of child abuse but in failing to follow up on those allegation - as it would seem a man of his principle would - he and his fellow administrators allowed an accused sexual predator to remain free of investigation for nine years.

Complete coverage: The Penn State Scandal

Mindboggling? No, heart breaking to the Penn State faithful - student, alumni, faculty, staff, administration and most of all to the children who were allegedly preyed upon by Paterno's former coach and rumored heir apparent.

The problem is larger than what Paterno did or did not do. Penn State seemingly acted more in the spirit of self-preservation than in child protection. But there is a pattern. The university, for decades, has put football, or especially Paterno, in a separate category, seemingly exempt from close scrutiny. And to be fair until now Paterno acted in an exemplary manner. He seemed beyond reproach: his players graduated; he donated $5 million to the school, most of which was used for a new library; and he was a genuine father figure to his players.

But there were cracks in the legacy. In 2004, the university president sought to have Paterno retire. But Joe Paterno paid his supposed boss no heed. And the university backed down and in the process, sublimated its rightful authority to his whims.

The lesson for boards of directors, university trustees and public officials is clear. Never allow one executive to loom larger than the institution he or she represents.

Here are some suggestions:

Set limits on tenure. Make it clear that the time of service is measured in increments of three to five years. The contract may be renewed regularly but it must be done so with a clear ending point. That prevents leaders from staying on indefinitely.

Groom successors. A leader's legacy begins on the first day of service but it is cemented by the people he grooms to succeed him both as successors and as members of future leadership teams. A deep bench negates the feeling that we have only one person in charge.

Insist on accountability. Leaders who remain in charge are those that deliver the goods. They produce returns that enrich the fiscal and social well being of the institution. Included in accountability must be personal behavior. That is, how do they treat others - colleagues, employees, and other stakeholders. As the saying goes managers get things right; leaders do it the right way.

Will there be exceptions to these guidelines? Certainly. An exemplary leader can extend his length of service. This may be especially true if the institution - more than the leader himself -- could benefit from his leadership for an additional period.

A more serious problem occurs when the reputation of a long-serving and well-intentioned executive becomes so entwined with the reputation of the organization they become synonymous. This is exactly what happened at Penn State. Joe Paterno became the public face of the university.

In good times, that may serve the institution well, but when trouble strikes the institution looks weak and vulnerable, not to mention culpable for failing to hold the leader accountable.