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Statues Are For Leaders

In the early morning hours of Sunday, July 22, 2012, workers at Penn State University draped a blue tarp over the statue of Joe Paterno just outside Beaver Stadium. Paterno's bronze likeness had greeted football fans entering the hallowed field since 2001. But on that morning, a forklift unceremoniously moved the monument to an undisclosed storage space inside the stadium.

Rumors of the statue's removal began circulating shortly after an independent report by former FBI director Louis Freeh concluded that Paterno, along with other high-level PSU administrators, knew about and deliberately concealed the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal. Just a few days before workers carted the monument away, a plane could be seen flying over State College, Pennsylvania, pulling a banner reading, "Take the statue down or we will."

In a statement, Penn State's current president Rod Erickson said, "I believe that, were it to remain, the statue will be a recurring wound to the multitude of individuals across the nation and beyond who have been the victims of child abuse."

Erickson could have added that leaving the Paterno statue in place would provide a constant reminder of a colossal, institution-wide leadership failure. And, for that matter, he might have mentioned that statues are reserved for leaders.

If numbers in the win column were a true measurement of leadership, Paterno's iconic likeness would still grace the stadium's entrance. But being a good leader is more than having an impressive win-loss record. Leadership is also about calling the right plays.  

Freeh's report confirms what most of us suspected all along: the Sandusky cover-up occurred at all levels of PSU's leadership team. Desperate to protect their leadership reputations, officials ignored abuse against children. The evidence, including emails between top administrators, is there in the report for anyone to see.

There are those clinging to the belief that Paterno was not involved in covering up the scandal. After all, there are no incriminating emails from Paterno, because he didn't use email. But his influence is unmistakable in messages in which top officials go along with ethical breaches after "talking it over with Joe."  

Being a great leader means doing what's right—every time—regardless of the potential consequences. And if you ignore that obligation, don't expect anyone to erect—or defend—a statue in your honor.
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