From the start, the Penn State sex abuse sex scandal has been an object lesson in the importance of leadership. Real leadership is about the willingness to confront unpleasant truths and take responsibility for seeing that they are resolved. Quite clearly, there was a failing of leadership at Penn State throughout the organizatio – CNN article I saw over the weekend highlighted this for me.
The article is worth reading in its entirety, but the basic idea is that a hesitance to use sexually explicit language allowed the shocking story to get watered down as it made its way up the ladder – sodomy turned into “sexual contact”, “sexual contact” turned into “inappropriate behavior,” you get the idea. According to McQueary himself:
“I went over to [Paterno’s] house and sat at his kitchen table and told him that I had seen Jerry Sandusky with a young boy in the shower and that it was way over the lines,” McQueary testified.
Pressed, he stated specifically that he never used the term sodomy or anal intercourse with Paterno out of a “respect” for his sensibilities. From Paterno, the story got passed up to Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, two administration officials. They met with McQueary 9-10 days after he witnessed the incident, and while there’s some quibbling about what language McQueary used with them, it’s clear that those key, horrible words were never used – sodomy and intercourse. It might have been “horsing around”, it may have been “fondling.”
Whatever the case, the fact remains that the person with the best information about what happened (McQueary) never called the police and never pressed his bosses when it was clear the police weren’t going to interve. He was 29 at the time of the incident – far beyond the age where “I told my dad” or “I told my boss” becomes an acceptable excuse for not taking action when you know something has happened. In a matter this serious, the safety of children trumps “respect” and delicate sensibilities every time. If McQueary DIDN’T use explicit enough language to convey the severity of what happened, then it was incumbent on him to go back to his bosses and use it until they got the picture. And if he DID use explicit language and nothing was done, it was his responsibility to contact the police himself.
Paterno and the leadership at Penn State failed because they didn’t take the accusations seriously enough and pass them to the police. But most of us will never be the head coach of a football team or the President of a university – far more of us are the assistant coaches and middle managers of the world. In my line of work, junior leaders are still leaders – Paterno and the administration are the natural targets of media scrutiny because of their high profile. For the average person, though, the leadership lesson is that even assistant coaches can call the police.