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.


5 replies
  1. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:


    The tragedy of Penn State is clearly on all our front pages.  I must admit that I have begun to feel a bit of frustration at the media moralizing that is permeating our airwaves.  This is a true tragedy and the importance of awareness can’t be overstated.  At the same time there is much more to be learned and the rush to judgment is unseemly.  My reaction to the Paterno side of the Penn State tragedy is one of sadness for a man who stayed too long at the fair.  He is an old man….and was in his seventies when the events occurred.  He has clearly been kept on for the purposes of the school…i.e., his ability to attract money.  He loved the adoration but clearly was not in charge.  The administrators who are rightly being hung out to dry used his popularity for their own purposes.  I think that your statement that his trustworthiness had been in decline should have really said that his capabilities had been in decline.  While it doesn”t compare to the tragedy of the victims, I just don’t see him as a perpetrator but rather as a sad victim as well.  Had you gone after Spanier or one of the other administrators, I probably would have cheered you.  But I can’t cheer the sadness of an old man whose story ends so badly.

    Rich Sternhell

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:


      Thanks for that comment.  

      While Paterno is still responsible for his side of the street, I agree with you, and wish I had tempered my critique with some mercy of the quality you describe. I suspect, as you suggest, he too has been co-opted by a force that became bigger than himself. 

      Thanks for providing the balance to my comments.


  2. S. Anthony Iannarino
    S. Anthony Iannarino says:


    You make an important point here. This was–and is–institutional. 

    The thing about icebergs is that the part you see is the very smallest part of the iceberg. The biggest part of the iceberg rests below the water line. I am certain we are going to learn even more, that it is going to be even more disturbing, and that the cover up was institutional. I am sure that the intent behind the cover up was to protect the institution (and, perhaps, those at its head). The idea was certainly to protect the institution from anything that would destroy its reputation, its trustworthiness and, of course, its future financial situation. But they got the math backwards. Had they brought these allegations into the light and decided to protect those that could not protect themselves, the institution (and those at its head) would not have broken themselves, their reputations, and the institution they were trying to protect against this cover up. Dealing with this issue quickly and transparently at the time of its occurence would have saved the institution and those at its head from harm; they would have been doing what was to be expected of anyone in any institution; it would have created trust that the institution would do what was right, even when it was the most unpleasant (and heinous) of issues. 


  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    No offense intended here my son, but there is no bigger red flag than anyone who touts their trustworthiness, markets themselves as trustworthy or uses a formula to determine one’s trustworthiness.


    Jesus F. Christ

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:


      JFC, on the off chance you think you’re referring to me, read a little more.

      You’ll find plenty of places where I caution against calling oneself trustworthy, and none where I claim to be such.

      You’ll also discover the trust equation is an analytical construct deaigned to help people heuristic ally understand the nature of trustworthiness, and perhaps improve their own.


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