Success, Paterno, and Leadership

Success, Paterno, and Leadership

We’ve all seen the horrors of the recent Penn State football scandal. I’d like to add a comment on leadership as it pertains to success. It’s a feature of the Penn State story and all too often a feature of success in coaching and other fields.

It seems every successful coach—and I’m talking major success here, multiple championships, scads of victories, year after year of publicity, and so forth—reaches a point where he or she becomes above the law. They don’t think the same rules, limitations, accountability, and guard rails that apply to us ought to apply to them. Whatever law they sense is of their own making, no one else’s. Penn State’s assistant coach suffers from some inner character and personality deformity, while the head coach, Joe Paterno, succumbed to the temptations of success.

Some time ago, I found myself at the same table as the mother of Butler University’s basketball coach Brad Stephens. I wanted to ask her to ask him something for me—how will you not end up like Paterno, above the law? How not?

Left untended, success is every bit as problematic as failure, maybe more so. Where failure discourages, success can encourage to a fault. Where failure sags, success swaggers. Where failure drives toward guilt and blame, success seeks applause and credit. The key is in the tending.

In my River analogy, treacherous waters flow from success as much as from failure.