Joe Paterno, Personal Integrity and Career Success

Joe Paterno passed away over the weekend.  You probably know this but he was the football coach at Penn State for the past 46 years.  He has more wins than any other coach in Division I college football.  He was known for running a very clean program with no recruiting violations or scandals.  Besides building a winning football program, Joe did a lot for Penn State, giving millions of dollars to the university to expand the library.

I’m a Penn State alum.  Joe was the head coach when I arrived there in the Fall of 1968.  I was always proud to be a Penn State alum.  I was especially proud of the football program and is reputation for fair play.

That all changed for me last Fall when one of Joe’s longtime assistant coaches was charged with several counts of child sex abuse.  You probably know the story.  In 2002, one of Joe’s assistant coaches, Mike McQueary observed Sandusky, who was retired but still had access to the Penn State football facilities, raping a young boy in a shower.  McQueary told Joe, who reported the incident to the Athletic Director.

Sandusky was never barred from the Penn State training facilities, and it is alleged that he continued to abuse young boys up until his arrest last Fall.  Many people, myself included, feel that Joe Paterno should have done more to follow up on what McQueary told him.  Make no mistake, he did what was required of him by law – he even testified at the Grand Jury investigating the allegations.  But doing what’s legal, isn’t necessarily doing what’s right.

Joe Paterno will forever be regarded as a great football coach, but one who gave tacit approval to child sex abuse.  And that’s the career success point of this post.   Your personal brand and reputation are important.  Guard them with all your might.

Last Friday, I was doing an interview for my membership site with Van Horsley, President of the Colorado operations of a large national bank.  I do these interviews to give my members inside advice on life and career success from successful people.  If you would like to see what the membership site is all about, go to  In our interview, Van concluded his remarks by saying, “Your integrity is an asset.  And once you spend that asset, it’s gone forever.”

As I listened to the coverage of Joe Paterno’s passing, I was reminded of Van’s remarks on integrity.  Joe Paterno spent his integrity when he didn’t follow up on the allegations about Jerry Sandusky.  By not doing so, and by continuing to let this man have access to the Penn State athletic facilities, Joe lost his integrity – which is too bad, because by all accounts he is a man of high integrity.

But that’s the way it goes.  It takes a long time to build a reputation as a person of integrity.  One foolish move can destroy all that.  All of the coverage on Joe’s passing said he “was a great football coach, BUT…”

Tweet 62 in my career advice book Success Tweets says, “Your personal brand should be unique to you, but built on integrity.  Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking.”

According to Wikipedia, “Integrity is consistency of actions, values, methods, measures and principles.”  Integrity and consistency are intertwined.  People who are consistent in their actions are seen as people with a high degree of integrity.

Oprah says, “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”  This is true.  If you practice situational ethics – doing the right thing only when you’re in the public eye — you aren’t really a person of high integrity, you’re just pretending to be one.

Besides, it’s hard to act one way in public, and another in private.  So to be safe, resolve to act like Oprah.  Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do – not because you’ll get credit, or avoid getting into trouble.

John Maxwell is a well-known business author.  One of his books sends the same message.  It’s called, There’s No Such Thing As Business Ethics: There’s Only One Rule for Making Decisions.  According to John, that rule is the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  In other words, do the right thing.

There’s a practical side to this too.  Mark Twain once said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”  In other words, if you’re always a person of high integrity, it’s easy to be a person of high integrity; there are no complicating factors – like remembering what you did or said in a given situation.

Polonius gave similar advice to Hamlet.  “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the day the night, thou canst be false to no man.”  Roy Blackman, my father in law, passed away a few years ago.  This quote was his epitaph.  It was on the program handed out at his funeral.  Roy embodied it in how he lived his life.  It was the only piece of advice he gave his grandson, Matt, as he went off to college.

Oprah, John Maxwell, Mark Twain and Shakespeare are all in agreement on one common sense piece of career advice.  If you want to become known as a person of high integrity – and I believe integrity is the cornerstone of any personal brand – act as a person of high integrity all the time – not just when it suits you, or when someone might notice.

Here’s a story to illustrate this point.  Cathy, my wife, was a flight attendant for 36 years.  Seniority is a very important thing in the airline industry.  It governs how you bid for trips, positions on the airplane and vacations – almost anything important to a flight attendant’s quality of work life.

Cathy was very active in her union.  And seniority was one of the union’s most sacred principles.  A few years before she retired, Cathy’s airline made a big push into the international market.  International flights were plum assignments; they went to people with high seniority.

However, the airline realized that it would be to their advantage to have some flight attendants who spoke the language of the country to which they were flying on these international flights.  Most flight attendants in her airline spoke English only.  The airline proposed putting two “language speakers” on each international flight.  Many people, including Cathy, were upset with this arrangement as they felt it violated the seniority concept.

Cathy used to fly from the US to London.  One day I said to her, “This whole language speaker issue doesn’t really affect you.  You fly to London; there are no language speakers on those flights.  Why do you care so much?”  She said, “I believe in the concept of seniority.  It doesn’t matter if I’m affected by language speakers.  It’s the principle of the thing.”  That’s consistency – and integrity — in action.

And that brings us back to Joe Paterno.  Here was a man with an incredibly strong personal brand.  He was known for doing the right thing in a business where too many people don’t do the right thing.  Sadly, his legacy is forever tarnished, because of what he didn’t do at a moment of truth.  I’m not writing this post to pass judgment on Joe – enough people have done that already.  I am writing it however, to reinforce my point of building your personal brand on integrity.

The common sense career success coach point here is simple.  Creating positive personal impact is one of the competencies all successful people possess.  You create positive personal impact by developing and nurturing your unique personal brand, being impeccable in your presentation of self, and knowing and following the basic rules of etiquette.  Your personal brand should be uniquely you, but it should be built on integrity.  Follow the advice in Tweet 62 in Success Tweets.  “Your personal brand should be uniquely you, but built on integrity.  Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking.”  As the sad ending to Joe Paterno’s career and life demonstrates, even a momentary lapse in your integrity can lead to serious consequences for a carefully crafted brand.

That’s the career advice I take from the sad ending of Joe Paterno’s life and career.  What do you think?  Please take a minute to share your thoughts with us in a comment.  As always, thanks for reading my daily thoughts on life and career success.  I value you and I appreciate you.


PS: If you haven’t already done so, please download a free copy of my popular career advice book Success Tweets and its companion piece Success Tweets Explained.  The first gives you 140 bits of career success advice tweet style — in 140 characters or less.  The second is a whopping 390 + pages of career advice explaining each of the common sense tweets in Success Tweets in detail.  Go to to claim your free copy.  You’ll also start receiving my daily life and career success quotes.

PPS: I opened a membership site last September.  It’s called My Corporate Climb and is devoted to helping people create career success inside large corporations.  You can find out about the membership site by going to http://www.mycorporateclimb.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.