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.


The Goldman Hearings: Who’ll Take Home the Iconic Moment Award?

The Army-McCarthy Hearings

On June 9, 1954, in what was known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings, Senator Joseph McCarthy was dramatically taken down by Joseph Welch, a Hale & Dorr lawyer representing the Army, after McCarthy’s attack on a young associate of Welch for associating with an alleged communist front, famously saying:

"Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

(Do not miss the video here).

It didn’t take long for that several minute interaction to become an iconic moment—the downfall of a demagogue, and the inflection point in a nation’s shift from shrill commie-phobia to a lower-temperature Cold War.

The Watergate Hearings

Cut to the summer of 1973. Tennessee’s Senator Howard Baker captured the iconic moment of the Watergate Hearings when he first said “The question is—what did the President know, and when did he know it?”

That phrase encapsulated the disbelief and revulsion that a nation felt as it’s head of state was deeply implicated in an ongoing illegal coverup of a sleazy burglary.

To me, the Senate Iran-Contra Hearings didn’t measure up to the previous two. The only statement I remember is, “What am I, a potted plant?” voiced by Ollie North’s lawyer.

And now we have the Goldman Hearings. Will they measure up? Will they stand the test of iconic history?

Do the Goldman Hearings Measure Up?

To become a top-ranked iconic Senate Hearing, two things must happen at the same time: there has to be a major shift going on in society, and someone must utter a clever turn of words that encapsulates the shift. Only history will tell if the Goldman Hearings end up in the top ranks: but if they do, which moment will turn out to have been the clincher?

The awards in this category are called The Ikes, for Iconic Moment. There are three nominees for the Ike in this hearing.

Log in below to vote for your favorite. Vote for:

Candidate Moment A: Caveat Emptor vs. Fiduciary Responsibility

Senator Susan Collins: Could you give me a yes or no to whether or not you considered yourself to have a duty to act in the best interests of your clients?
Daniel Sparks: I believe we have a duty to serve our clients well.

If this moment takes the Ike, it will be because we have evolved away from the deification of market forces as self-correcting to a view that businesses have some social responsibilities, particularly to customers. As a corporate business model, the trader’s ethos of pure competition and markets will have been judged in adequate to run serious economy-critical business organizations.

Candidate Moment B: The Legal vs. the Ethical

Senator Carl Levin: If your employees think that it’s crap—that it’s a shitty deal—do you think that Goldman Sachs ought to be selling that to customers…when you heard [your employees saying] what a shitty deal, god what a piece of crap—when you read about those emails, do you feel anything?
Goldman CFO Viniar: I think that’s very unfortunate to have on email.

If this moment wins the Ike, it will be because the nation is fed up with hair-splitting legal defenses in response to unethical behavior. Viniar’s instinctive response belied a selfish and self-oriented view of navigating the legal thickets, unimpaired by ethical concerns.

Candidate Moment C: Ego and Hubris Gone Wild

This is actually an email preceding the hearing, from “Fabulous Fab” Goldman VP Fabrice Tourre: The whole building is about to collapse any time now. Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab.”

If this becomes the Iconic Moment Winner, it will be because “Fab” personifies the abstract: this is what the “best and brightest” have figured out to do? And this guy is what they turned into?

So, what’s your vote? What moment will take home the “Ike” Award for Iconic Moment of the Goldman Hearings?

Now Pitching For Watergate: Roger Clemens

It didn’t start with Watergate—and it sure didn’t end with it.

Still, the1972 failed Republican burglary of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington still best embodies an eternal truth:

The cover-up is worse than the crime.

How many reiterations of that tragi-comedy have we seen recently?

-President Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal;
-Dan Rather and the forged memos regarding George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service;
-Martha Stewart and the sell order with her broker;
-Senator Craig and the Minneapolis airport;
-Senator Allen and the macaca brouhaha;
-Congressman Mark Foley
-Pastor Ted Haggard

Now it’s Roger Clemens.

Bill Dwyre, columnist for the LA Times , gets it just right in his Roger Clemens Gets Some Unsolicited Tough Advice.

Dwyre is one good writer. In a fine imitation of another Clemens (Samuel) channeling Huck Finn, he offers Roger Clemens his best advice on how to get out of this fix, based on all the slick huckstering he’s seen as a reporter. Some excerpts:

Let’s pretend we have gone to the dark side and our job is to tell our client, Clemens, how to get himself out of the fine fix he’s in…
You get a big room in a big hotel near a big airport and call a news conference.

You walk in with George Mitchell, sit down and start by saying how honored you are that a man of his stature is there; that you are flattered to be sitting next to somebody who has done things such as negotiating successful treaties in Northern Ireland.

Then you say you are sorry, that you won’t be able to say that enough to properly express your depth of feeling. You explain that you are a proud man who is also almost psychotically competitive. You say that you really have no idea if the steroids and HGH helped all that much, that it could be that what you accomplished in baseball might have been accomplished anyway.

But the thought of other players having an edge overwhelmed your better judgment and sent you on your way. Then, one denial led to another and before you knew it, you didn’t know how to turn back.

You don’t expect fans’ forgiveness, you just hope for a glimmer of understanding. You expect some of your personal pitching records to carry an asterisk wherever they appear, and you ask that your name not even be listed on any Hall of Fame ballot, because that might take votes away from a player more deserving.

[Your remaining years’] salary will go to two causes. The first will be used by Major League Baseball for costly blood tests of all players for HGH, done randomly, and for continued research into affordable HGH tests. The second will be a foundation that spends all its efforts getting high school athletes to understand the evils of performance-enhancing drugs.

You apologize to your wife for involving her in this and you describe how you sat your kids down and looked them in the eye.

Next, you do the hardest thing. You apologize to Brian McNamee.

Finally, you let Mitchell have the last word. Expect appropriate, articulate and scholarly.

Then go home, turn on the TV and watch how fast the worm will turn. Americans want to forgive you, to love you again, and the media that battles now for every stray eye and ear will quickly tune in to that and lead your reversal of fortune.

You will always be damaged goods, but a scar is infinitely better than the current stake you have protruding from your heart.

Your window of time is closing fast. Get rid of those two legal lumps you hired, Frick and Frack. Sit down, take a long look in the mirror. Then do it.

Clemens could probably pass a lie detector test; no one is more convinced by his bluster than he himself is.

Dwyer is giving him fabulous advice. And I’ll wager 10:1 Clemens won’t take it.

Is this an athletic tragedy? Or another pathetic, almost-comedy?