The Firing of Legendary Penn State Coach Joe Paterno: An Ethical Dilemma

The firing of Joe Paterno as coach of Penn State has dominated the news this week. A legendary coach with the most wins in the history of major college football, Joe was dismissed for not doing more to stop the alleged sexual abuse of children by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

The news came as a shock, because in many ways Joe was considered an outstanding human being. Not only had he coached at Penn State for 61 years, he’d also donated more than $3 million to the university and helped raise more than $13 million for its library.

I feel badly about the Paterno firing for two reasons. First, I’m deeply saddened about the impact of the alleged sexual abuse on the victims and their families. Second, I’m saddened for the students at Penn State, who argued that the board of trustees should have allowed Joe at least one more game or let him finish the season. From their point of view, Joe had broken no laws. When he’d learned about the sexual abuse, he’d reported it to the athletic director and to the vice president.

As I thought about it this week, the case of Joe Paterno is a classic example of why it’s so important to do the Ethics Check when making key decisions. In our book The Power of Ethical Management: Integrity Pays! You Don’t Have To Cheat To Win, Norman Vincent Peale and I describe the Ethics Check, which poses a series of questions around three areas: legality, fairness, and self-esteem. The next time you’re faced with a dilemma, ask yourself these questions:

1. Is it legal? Will you be violating either civil law or organizational policy?

In today’s society, people tend to focus on this first aspect of the Ethics Check—the legal question. They think if they can get lawyers to okay the decision, they’re doing the right thing. But just because an action is legal does not make it ethical. To assure that you’re doing the right thing, it’s a good idea to review the second two aspects of the Ethics Check.

2.  Is it balanced? Is it fair to all concerned in the short term as well as the long term? Does it promote win-win relationships?

If Coach Paterno had really thought through the fairness question—if he had fully considered the trauma to the victims and their families—he might have realized that he needed to do more. He’s already made statements that he probably should have done more. The fairness question goes beyond the legal question and looks at the effect your decision will have on others.

3.  How will it make you feel about yourself?  Will it make you proud? Would you feel good if your decision was published in the newspapers? Would you feel good if your kids and grandkids knew about it?

Unethical behavior erodes self-esteem. That’s why you feel troubled when you make a decision that goes against your own innate sense of what’s right. As the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.” Thinking through how you’d feel if your actions were published in the newspaper or if your kids found out about them can help you decide the right thing to do. I’m sure that if Paterno knew how this incident would dominate his reputation at the end of his career, he certainly would have done more.

This simple but powerful Ethics Check can help anyone—from world leaders to boards of directors to private citizens—make decisions that stand the test of time and result in the greatest good. When you look at all three aspects of the Ethics Check, you can see that in making their tough decision, the board of trustees at Penn State did the right thing.

How to Deal with Problems

This morning I was listening to Tony Robbins. I went and got a tape of Tony after being with him recently. He was saying a lot of people acquaint happiness with having no problems. He says that’s crazy. It reminded me of one of Norman Vincent Peale’s favorite stories. Norman was walking down the street in New York City when he ran into a friend of his and said, “How are you doing?”  Norman thought it was just a casual greeting, but the guy took it as an invitation and he lay down all of his problems at Norman’s feet. After about twenty minutes, he was finished and he said, “Norman, if you can solve all of my problems, I’ll give you a check for $5,000 to give to your favorite charity.” Norman said that he had never turned down such a challenge, so he ruminated and he cogitated and he agitated and he came up with a solution. He said, “I was just at an organization the other day where people have no problems. Would you like to go there?” And his friend said, “That’s exactly where I want be.” And Norman said, “I’ll take you there tomorrow. It’s called Woodlawn Cemetery. The only people I know who have no problems are dead.”  Problems are a way of life, so if you equate your happiness to not having any problems, you’re going to be naïve for the rest of your life. Happy people know how to deal with problems. They don’t get bogged down with problems. They solve problems. They work on problems. But they don’t let problems take over their life. You know, sometimes you put a problem on your back and it drags you down. What you have to do is to say, “How do I solve this?”  Happiness and problems go together. So as Tony said, it’s your attitude—it’s what you bring to a problem—that can result in a positive solution, So if you have any problems today, great! You’ll probably have a happier day.

Catch People Doing Things Right – Twitter Contest!

You know, one of the things that bugs me is how much the press goes too far in trying to catch people doing things wrong and find out where they stumbled, where they’ve made mistakes. It seems to be relevant now with the Tiger Woods saga, but this “gotcha” mentality is something that has been going on for a long time. It doesn’t matter what position, what office, what they’re trying to do. They love to make sure they can dig somebody a hole and try to push them into it.

I heard a great quote the other day that originally came from Teddy Roosevelt. He said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the person who points out how strong people stumble, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

So it’s really tough. Like I say, if you’ve never made a mistake in your life or done anything stupid, then you probably lie about other things, too. The important thing is not doing a stupid thing, but realize when you’ve done it and own up to it, give an apology, and move on. I think it would be really good if we could spend more time catching people doing things right rather than wrong. So take care of yourselves. You might make a mistake, but give it your best.

I’ve always enjoyed and promoted the concept of “Catching People Doing Things Right,” and over at they are running a new Twitter contest…

Starting on Tuesday and lasting for 72-hours, The Ken Blanchard Companies will give you a chance to “catch someone doing things right” by entering that person in a drawing for a copy of one of my latest books. The book will contain a personalized inscription congratulating the winner on being caught doing things right.  The contest ends on Friday at 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time and you can enter as many people as you would like.  Here’s how to participate:

1.    Go to and post the name of the person you would like to catch doing things right along with a very short description of why. Include the following code in your message @leaderchat

For example: Nick Peterson—for doing an outstanding job all year and helping to make this our best year ever!  #@leaderchat

2.    Push the UPDATE button!

It’s as simple as that.  Every day between now and Friday we’ll randomly choose one lucky person among those entered to receive one of the personalized books.  Each day’s winner will be posted at 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time at

Don’t miss this chance to say “thank you” to someone who really deserves it.  Participating is a fun, low-cost, and very thoughtful way to let someone know that you appreciate them!

PS: If you don’t have a Twitter account yet, you can sign up at Twitter when you get there.  Just follow the instructions and you’ll be online in minutes.

Bring Your Brain to Work!

I used to work with a fellow named Rick Tate, who talked about studying people who trained seeing-eye dogs. What they found was that they kick two kinds of dogs out of the program: The first kind were the ones who were completely obedient, who would do anything that the master said. That was really kind of surprising because you would have thought that the only ones they would kick out would be the ones who wouldn’t do anything that the master said. But they kicked out both kinds.  The only dogs they kept in the program were the dogs who would do what the master said unless it didn’t make sense. They kept the dogs that could think for themselves. I think that’s what we as leaders should always try to do—get everybody to think for themselves. Sure, we have some guidelines, here’s what our policy is and all, but use your brains. You can imagine a seeing-eye dog with his master at the street corner, and the master says, “Forward,” and the dog looks up and there’s a car coming at sixty miles an hour. And the dog thinks, “This is gonna be a real bummer,” as he leads his master out into the middle of the street. So we want to empower people to use their brains – train them to do what the boss wants, or what the policies are, unless it doesn’t make sense. That’s really allowing people to bring their brains to work. So don’t get hit by a car! Use your brain today.

Be Audible Ready

My wife Margie and I needed to fly to New York in early September, and we had made a plan that we weren’t going to fly on September 11. But you know, life is not always in your own hands. I learned that from Don Shula really clearly when he talked about the importance of being audible-ready. That means you have to have a plan, but when plans go awry, you have to be able to “call an audible.” You have to go with the flow.

So on September 10 when we were on our way to our first stop in Dallas, there were all kinds of problems with the Dallas airport, and we had to land in Oklahoma City because we had to get more gas. We eventually got to Dallas at about nine o’clock that night. Of course, our connecting flight to New York had already taken off. So we stayed at the airport hotel right there. The next morning, September 11, we flew safely to New York City. I think one of the things that makes you relax and be more easy in life is if you have an audible-ready attitude. Shula said that when you call an audible in football, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a plan. When things change, you just have to call a different play. You can’t get all uptight and ticked off because you didn’t get to go with your original plan. Some people at the airport were really bent out of shape because their plans were changed. They got themselves all out of whack about something they couldn’t control. So sometimes things change and you have to just go with the flow.