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?