Penn State: Character Trumps Competence

The tragedy of what happened at Penn State has been well covered in the news.  There are so many lessons that can be derived from what we know about that situation.

But, perhaps the biggest lesson we can all learn is how character trumps competence.  No level of past or present competence will make up for a failure in character.

Character Rules

The leaders at Penn State knew how to run a successful athletic program.  They were highly competent.  The decisions that tore apart that program had little to do with the skills needed to run that department. These were tests of character that the leaders failed.

I know very little about the overall character of those individual leaders.  It is not fair for me to try to describe who they have been based on what I know of these events.

Those individuals could be great spouses and parents.  They could have given tons to charity and helped starving children in Africa.  But, when it came time to act, their character failed and the collective character of that organization failed.

If one person had the courage to take a stand at Penn State the rest of the people could have followed.  Unfortunately, that one person did not stand-up.  It may have been one decision, but the consequences are beyond calculation.

Ask any disgraced political or religious leader, and they will tell you that a single bad decision can have tremendous blowback.

The Blowback Of Character Failures:

  • The short-term advantage gained is rarely worth the eventual consequences.
  • They are forever attached to the leader and the organization.
  • The residual effects persist for a long time.
  • The collateral damage to others cannot be measured.

For our personal lives and for our work lives, Penn State is a cautionary tale.  I may be a good person who has always done the right things.  But, one bad decision can tear that all down.

The Bottom Line:

I must guard my character!  There are no small decisions when it comes to my character.

I must guard my organization’s character!  If someone chooses to do the wrong thing, I must act! Inaction by a leader reflects his character as much as action.

Penn State the institution will recover.  But no individual involved in this tragedy will ever be the same.  I pray for peace that transcends all understanding for every single person involved.

For those of us not involved, we must learn from all of this.  Character trumps competence.  We must pay attention to our character and the character of those we lead more than any skills we can acquire.

Character trumps competence-

  • A failure in the character of an expert is a tragedy that can bring down a Top 10 athletic program.
  • A triumph of character in an average person, of average skills can inspire others to greatness.


When have you experienced the blowback from another person’s failure in character?

5 Responses to “Penn State: Character Trumps Competence”

  1. Dorease Rioux August 20, 2012 at 10:03 am #

    Hi Dave!

    Excellent, thought-provoking commentary, as always. Thank you!
    There is a quote that says something like “The Choices we make will tell the stories of our lives”. Often, when they weren’t the wisest choices, we have unwelcome consequences to navigate through. Hopefully, we humble ourselves to take ownership and to LEARN the lessons we must.
    Regarding, reporting bad behavior, etc. I agree. Your insightful reflections on the Penn State situation are good ones to ponder.

    On a side note: Depending on the situation (a crime versus an inferior decision, for example), it may be wise to extend mercy & grace while speaking caring TRUTH to that person … giving them another chance for changing direction in their life. In such a case, restoration might be the best path.
    I’m one who errs on the side of mercy and grace, when it might prove beneficial (of course, not in the case of most crimes).
    Just a few thoughts on a Monday morn…

    • Dave Anderson August 21, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

      I agree with you that everyone should look for opportunities to show grace. The dividing line for leaders comes when we are talking about simple mistakes and conscious decisions that are moral failures. At that moment, a leader must act.

      The action can take the different forms based on the severity of the failure. But definitive action is necessary to correct and prevent the failure from happening in the future.

  2. Kris Yagel August 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm #

    Great post, Dave. During a public speaking course at West Point, I learned that in most cases it’s not what a leader does (in terms of a “bad decision”) that defines his/her character, but rather how he/she recovers from it. Accepting responsibility and taking immediate action to correct the behavior really appears to be the best method in recovering from an error in judgement. In the case of Penn State an error in judgement was made, but, unfortunately, no acceptance of responsibility nor correcive action was initiated. It pains me to say this considering I grew up about two hours from Penn State, but that organization failed miserably on many fronts in dealing with the situation.

    • Dave Anderson August 22, 2012 at 5:47 am #

      The ability to ask for forgiveness goes a long way in determining the direction of our character. It takes humility to do it. Without humility, our character falls short.

      I’ve learned through my life and in reading the Bible, if I don’t have humility, don’t worry. God will bring it my way.

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