Penn State Case Highlights the Potential Pitfalls of Loyalty


The recent NCAA penalties against Penn State University about the cover-up that took place with regard to Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of young men highlights one of the core responsibilities of CHROs.

No, I don't mean to imply that such activity happens in the C-suite. However, many bloggers and commentators have focused on how Joe Paterno failed to do anything, placing increasing blame on him, and suggesting that the administration failed to do anything because of a fear of Joe's power. While acknowledging that Paterno's willful ignorance was morally wrong, I think it's important to understand what was going on.

Sandusky had been a loyal and effective lieutenant on the Paterno coaching staff, and one would expect that Paterno felt a friendship and loyalty to him for his service. Thus, his failure could have been due as much to his personal feeling for Sandusky as for his desire to protect the football program. I believe the failure of the administration was its unwillingness to recognize how this loyalty was clouding Paterno's vision and stepping in as an objective third party to take action where action would be difficult for Paterno.

When I talk with CHROs and CEOs about the CHRO role, one issue that often comes up is that CHROs must often push CEOs to exit high-ranking executives because of poor performance. The biggest obstacle is usually the CEO's loyalty to that executive which is causing them to overlook or make excuses for the performance deficiencies. Thus, it falls on the CHRO to step in as an objective third party to get something done. Unlike the PSU administration that had hierarchical authority to take action, CHROs must rely on personal influence to turn the CEO's head and heart, which is dangerous, but necessary business.

Loyalty is a great attribute, one that is necessary for effective functioning of an executive team. However, in its extreme it may end up being dysfunctional, and CHROs must sense when that is taking place, and dig deep into their influencing toolkit to place the good of the business over the strength of that relationship.