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Penn State and the Peter Principle

by Earl Wallace July 25, 2012

The Penn State scandal has people calling for board oversight reforms.  Changes only are as effective as the character of the people they involve.  Character results from the values that motivate behaviors. The Peter Principle results when people get promoted but fail to learn new perspectives and skills to handle the new responsibilities. 

Power Drunk People

The Three-Dimensional Leader: Negotiating Your Mission, Resources and Context, asks: “What is the difference between someone who is intoxicated on power and someone who is on drugs or alcohol?  You get erratic behaviors from both, including loss of mission focus, lying and mismanagement.” 

Success Stimulated the Peter Principle 

Perhaps leaders at Penn State became drunk on success, which blinded them to holding accountable convicted child molester, Jerry Sandusky, who was perceived as contributing to and perpetuating it.  Thus Joe Paterno, and three other former top university officials failed to report a 2001 incident, which could have halted Sandusky’s abusive activities.

Character Cultivates Culture  

Culture is at the core of these types of challenges that Penn State and other organizations face.  The Three-Dimensional Leader notes: 

The quality of leadership determines the quality of followership. For the members of an organization to attain the collective achievement for which they have been gathered together ... requires them to be led at all stratums by leaders ... who understand the corporate mission, appreciate the complexity of their human resources, and know how to negotiate the context so the resources effectively are positioned to achieve their goals.  Because people only can do what they know, it is essential ... [they] be learners ... of [III-D] managerial leadership. 

Three-Dimensional Leadership provides a system of values that guides people to understand how to negotiate the context of what makes the organization great by doing their specific, individual parts to contribute to what supports its overall objectives. 

This cultivates human capital with the cultural fit to contribute consistent conduct from the boardroom to the mailroom, thus securing the organization’s long term effectiveness.    


Earl C. Wallace is author of 

The Three-Dimensional Leader: Negotiating Your Mission, Resources and Context.

Visit his web page at and review other insights on his Three-Dimensional Leadership Blogs in 333 words or less.

Contact Earl for training and programs that will put your team on a Three-Dimensional Leadership trajectory today that avoids leadership liabilities for tomorrow!