Joe Paterno, our fiduciary duties, and our moral responsibilities.

Photo via The Onion

Joe Paterno’s statue is coming down today.

I am not a Penn State alumni, so I don’t have a personal or emotional stake in this, but I do have opinions.

My opinions are coming to focus in on where our fiduciary duties as leaders in our businesses, as departmental heads, as board members, conflict with our moral responsibilities.

When I think of the Penn State scandal, I see Joe Paterno’s dedication to the football program as being so profound, that he allowed that fiduciary duty to the football program to supersede his moral (and legal) responsibility to protect the children involved.

And there is no defense.

Penn State made this man the center of their identity, and for good reason. They erected a statue to his honor. And he failed them.

Paterno’s moral and legal failures were so profound that they continue to receive round-the-clock coverage in the 24-hour news cycle.

But Paterno is not alone. He is just the most well-known.

As leaders, we are all confronted with moments when our fiduciary, ethical, moral and legal responsibilities collide.

I have a fiduciary duty at work in my department. If someone confides in me, I am an agent of the firm and I am duty bound to report it.

As an agent of the firm, I can become privy to information that can be harmful to the firm, and which some might want to sweep under that rug in the lobby, but there is a moral responsibility to make certain it does not.

As a member of a board of directors, it is my responsibility to raise my hand and ask questions if I am not comfortable. I cannot blindly vote on a recommendation.

I am not perfect, and do not think myself above another, but I have resigned from positions when I was unable to resolve my moral and fiduciary responsibilities.

Joe Patereno’s legacy, to me, is that when confronted with that profound a conflict between moral and fiduciary duties, we need to rise above and do the right thing whether it costs us our jobs, our positions, our reputations. Sometimes the wrong is so great that we cannot allow our ego and pride to stand in the way of that right action.

When your name is on a company, a building, or is immortalize in a statue, you have a greater responsibility as well: Legacy.

My family name is on several buildings, is associated closely to an industry. I have family members immortalized in statue.

When they did the wrong things, when they chose self-interest and self-preservation as the easier way, they tarnished that name and destroyed legacies.

There is no easy way out here. I suppose we can look to history for quotes and answers:

The price of greatness is responsibility.

- Winston Churchill

And, we need to reintroduce humility as a concept to live by: We need to stop building statues to living people; Politicians need to stop naming buildings for themselves.

It was said so perfectly on Meet the Press this morning:

“We should not put up statues of living people. You are going to make yourself a hostage to fortune.”

Law firms will always be named after lawyers, which means that there is a greater responsibility on those named on the door and on the letterhead to do the right thing.

A personal scandal might harm the firm, but it can recover.

A public scandal can destroy the firm, causing it to close within months, tarnishing the reputations of all involved, and causing financial hardships to many.

While I do believe that to move forward Paterno’s statue needs to come down, I just hope that we never forget his true legacy.

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