PSU – Generations of Culture

by Paul Meshanko

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Are there lessons we can learn from Penn State?

Is there a generational consideration that should be given to Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky and others involved in the allegedly horrific crime committed on the campus of Penn State University?  Did the perspective on life that is shown from their generation lead to the actions of the alleged cover up in this case?  Could we learn more on what this teaches us about similar situations?

The answer is yes.  The generational perspective in this case comes from a generation known as the tradionalist group.  This group is from the WWII era and Coach Paterno, born in 1926 falls right in the middle of this group while Coach Sandusky born in 1944 is on the edge of the baby boomers. Let’s examine the key characteristics of this generation and see if this sheds some light on the relationship between these two individuals.

  The tradionalist generation are loyal to the employer and expect loyalty in return; possess strong interpersonal skills, enjoy flextime so they can work their own schedule; believe promotion, recognition and raises should come from job tenure. They build a legacy – expect a lifetime career with one employer or at least in one field and have a sense of personal responsibility to work.

Coach Paterno was the leader of this program for over forty years and developed a culture of loyalty from those involved. The corporate culture within the system was solely directed by his life experience.  He has built a legacy but regardless of all the good will that he has built over the years his moral judgment will be forever in question.  While we may never know the truth and circumstances in this tragedy, what we do know is if the culture were different within this team all of the cases that occurred after 2002 could have been prevented.

What would this legacy look like in the corporate world?

The leader that has been in place for decades setting a culture of “this is the way we have always done it” and expects everyone to fall in line with the culture the leader has built as his legacy.  In this company if a scandal was brewing we would see the leader take care of it and expect that he can handle the situation in the way he knows best.  The leader would know that if such a scandal was public his reputation and legacy would be destroyed.

Can we learn from this?  Sure we can. Has this happened before in the corporate world and a different direction taken?  Yes it has.  Think back to 1982, potassium cyanide was placed in Extra-Strength Tylenol throughout Chicago. Seven individuals died from this form of terrorism. Johnson & Johnson (the makers of the pain reliever) could have simply taken Tylenol off the counters in the Chicago area. Instead, the company immediately recalled Tylenol from the stores nationwide. Consumers, advertisers and other businesses praised J&J for its swift actions. Today the company is one of the most well-liked companies by consumers (Bickel, 2011).

Will Penn State University be able to recover from this scandal?  Yes, if they put safe guards in place to ensure this can never happen again.  The school must work to create a safe environment for all staff, students, and visitors. PSU will need to carefully create a standard of operation procedure in reporting and handling such situations in the future.

Future leaders of the institution will need to have a greater understanding on the impact that child safety and the handling of this situation will have on the future enrollment of students and families supporting youth camps on campus.  A policy is not enough.  A culture change is needed and respect for people should be at the foundation if they indeed want to return happy to the valley.

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