What the Paterno Scandal Tells Us About Trust

Joe Paterno was the de facto leader of a powerful movement. He thought he could outrun an ethical blemish in his movement, while still preaching the gospel of high values.

Where have we heard this before? Try Watergate. The Catholic Church. The SEC.

We keep replaying Captain Renault – shocked, shocked to find that something has been going on.

The Myth of Trust Shattered

One of the more common myths about trust is that “it takes a long time to create, and only a moment to destroy.”

If that were true, Bernie Madoff would have been destroyed when Harry Markopolis first blew the whistle way back in 2000.  But the SEC wasn’t in a listening mood. It takes a lot more than a moment to destroy trust when you’re dealing with a former NASDAQ Chairman.

If it were true that trust takes only a moment to destroy, then the Catholic Church would have taken decisive action back in 1984 when charges were made against priests and hushed by the bureaucracy at the cardinal level. But it takes more than a priest defending NAMBLA to destroy trust in a hubristic institution.

If it were true that trust could be destroyed in an instant, then Paterno’s non-response way back in 2002 to a first-hand witness account and the complaint of a mother would have been fatal to his following. But trust isn’t destroyed in an instant, not to an institutional network highly dependent on the leader.

In truth, trust dies a very slow death; ask any counselor to battered women.

Trusting the Hubristic

I use the Trust Equation as a deconstructive tool for analyzing trustworthiness.  It points to credibility, reliability, intimacy, and low self-orientation as drivers of trustworthiness.

Most businesspeople think credibility and reliability are the main drivers of trustworthiness.  They focus on credentials, track records, and reputation. “Madoff was the chairman of NASDAQ; Elie Wiesel invested with him. He must be trustworthy.”

Sadly, that’s what fosters hubris. Paterno breathed his own exhaust long enough to be shocked that others could consider child abuse and hypocrisy important enough to keep him from one more Saturday. Nixon could never come to grips with the essential lesson of Watergate – the coverup is always ethically worse than the crime.

It’s easier to trust people who truly believe in their own trustworthiness – even if that trustworthiness has been, by any objective standard, destroyed.

The Checks and Balances of Trust

Resumes can be forged; track records can be altered. Reputations based solely on hearsay can be abused.

Reputation is based on the assumption that the past is what it appears to be, that the future will look like the past, and that if X million other people say it’s so, it must be so.

Usually that works. Occasionally it doesn’t.  That’s why reliance on any one aspect of the trust equation is inadequate.

It’s not like the other factors of the trust equation (intimacy, low self-orientation) can’t be faked either. Intimacy is the most powerful factor, and the preferred vehicle of the con man. Again, don’t trust any one variable.

But today’s lesson is about over-trusting institutional hubris.

Consider some words: Paterno, Papa, JoePa, il Papa, Godfather, paternal. As children, we all want the benevolent and powerful protection of the father figure. And so when our institutions’ leaders garb themselves in that kind of imagery, we all too often react as kids.

As adults, we need to be adult about our institutions. The blind adulation of a million is not ten times better than the adulation of a hundred thousand. If the adulation is unfounded, then it’s just ten times stupider and more tragic.

Paterno was a great coach whose greatness was decidedly on the decline. His legacy wasn’t unhinged by a moment, but by a steady erosion in his trustworthiness. The fact that he was among the last to know is a testament to how profoundly we can fool even ourselves.

The value of a second opinion looks mighty high today.