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Joe Paterno: Lessons to Learn From Steve Jobs

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Steve Jobs is clear. From the beginning, he was an unfavored child. He was rejected by his first two sets of parents. His birth parents didn't want him. These young graduate students were unable (or unwilling) to care for this illegitimate child. His second parents reneged on their commitment to adopt him because of his sex. They wanted a daughter, not a son. While ultimately loving parents adopted Jobs, he lived his life with the freedom of a man unencumbered by having to maintain some coveted position. He knew about rejection. He had nothing to lose.

Having survived this early basic rejection, Jobs had a psychological basis to navigate his next profound rejection, being fired from Mac, the company he started. Those first years after the firing were difficult for Jobs but he emerged from them stronger then ever. He didn't give a darn about what people thought. He was more driven to pursue what he envisioned for himself. Fortunately, he had an internal moral compass to steer him.

When diagnosed with terminal cancer, Jobs didn't close his eyes and try to ignore truth. He didn't attempt to rewrite what was obvious. Jobs confronted his illness head-on while also preparing for his death. He fought for his life, surviving a liver transplant, while also insuring a succession plan at Apple. He continued to live his life privately but knew that upon his death, his life would be dissected and analyzed. So he did what Jobs did so well: he took charge.

Wanting his biography to be a truthful reflection of who he was -- the good, bad and ugly -- Jobs contacted Walter Isaacson to write his life story. Isaacson reported that Jobs cooperated with the writing of the book. He was as honest and forthcoming as only an unfavored child could be. There was no special status to be protected or coveted relationship to be maintained. Jobs made no attempt to spin his image, conceal his demons, or control what was written. He encouraged people he knew to speak as honestly with Isaacson. In providing this unvarnished, sometimes uncomplimentary view of Jobs, there is realness in Isaacson's representation of this American hero.

In contrast with Steve Jobs, the unfavored son with nothing to lose, Joe "Joe Pa" Paterno was a favorite son with everything to lose. His favorite son status was dependent on his abilities to make his admiring public feel good.

To the students and alumni of Penn State, he was the face of school spirit, a rallying point for their pride in the Nittany Lions. This football team was nationally respected; its players had winning records on the field and were academically strong.

Coach Paterno, a dean of college coaches, brought prestige to Penn State. He was revered as one of the all time great US college football coaches, winning countless national awards. His opinions swayed decisions on most matters of collegiate football. He reflected well on the university.

Paterno's fund raising abilities was a board of regents and president's dream. He raised money by example, contributing $4 million of his own money to Penn State. He delighted that the library was named in his honor while the sports arena was named after a former university president. This fed the image he and the university cherished -- a football coach committed to academics.

By some estimates, Paterno raised over $1 billion for the school. He likened fund raising to recruiting athletes. He once said, "Sooner or later, you gotta ask the kid, 'Are you coming or aren't you?' I don't see much difference. You make the case. And you say we'd like this, and sometimes they'd say, 'Well, yeah, I can handle that.' Sometimes they'll say, 'I can't do that right now. How about this?' That's fine."

In 1984, the university launched its first campaign, setting a $200 million goal -- the highest target ever set by a public university at the time. It raised $352 million, largely attributable to Paterno's relationships with alumni and his charisma. In the capital campaign ending in 2003, Paterno encouraged the trustees to set $1 billion as the target. The campaign raised $1.4 billion. He is credited with Frank Pasquerilla's commitment of $5 million for the ethical and religious affairs center on the State College campus.

Joe Paterno seemed to thrive on the adulation heaped on him by Penn State, and the university benefited from his parleying success on the football field to the good of the greater college community. Over his 62 years on the Penn State coaching staff, 46 as head coach, he grew to believe that he made the rules, possibility forgetting that fundamental rules of moral conduct applied to him, too. As the sex abuse scandal began to unfold, his response to the Penn State Board of Trustee conveyed this belief. Paterno took matters in to his own hand, indicating that he would resign at the conclusion of this season and devote the rest of his life doing everything he could to help the university. Further, he said that the Board of Trustees they "should not spend a single minute discussing (my) status. They have far more important matters to address."

As a favorite son, Paterno grew to believe that he was entitled to call the shots without concern for consequences. The ensuing feelings of power, and possible fear of losing that power, may have left him blind to his moral responsibility to the abused boys, to his football players and coaches, to the university community, to all those who looked to him for leadership.

There is little question that Joe Paterno loved Penn State and Penn State loved him. This institutional adoration feeds institutional blindness which is necessary to preserve the arrangement: Joe Paterno made the Penn State community feel good and proud, and in return, the community gave him greater freedom to write and play by his own rules. Ultimately this arrangement -- which over time holds the favorite son accountable for less and less -- contributes to its tragic unraveling.

Joe Paterno's form of heroism is driven by his status of being the favorite son. In that role he learns that the key to success is to please others. This stands in sharp contrast to Steve Jobs' form of heroism that is based on being unfavored. In that role he learns that the key to success is to be the master of his fate, the captain of his soul. There is no one else to gratify. It is easier to maintain a moral path.