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Lessons on Leadership, Bill O'Brien & Penn State

by on January 06, 2014 7:10 AM

With the breaking news about the departure of Penn State's football coach and the minute by minute updates flying around the internet, it was hard not to get caught up in the frenzy. What is true? What is rumor? Is the source credible? Are "insider" reports accurate?

One blogger said it best. "O'Brien didn't like us as much as we liked him." In all of the commentary and emotion and analysis, it's clear that the nature of the business in today's college sports environment and in our immediate gratification society is more two years (O'Brien) than 46 years (Paterno).

In my post-holiday, pre-semester week of a little time off, prepping for my spring classes and reflecting on 2013 and looking ahead to 2014, I keep coming back to leadership.

The thread of leadership and what it means to be a leader is a consistent theme throughout Penn State's recent history, including the departure of Bill O'Brien and the search for a new football coach. And a new university President. And a new Athletic Director.

What exactly is a "leader" and how does that person get that title? Is it nature? Is it nurture? Is it about followers? What are the leadership influences and are they different in business or industry or education – or sports? After the person takes the wheel, how does the leader act and how does the leader go about making decisions?

It reminds me of the saying "Leadership is about getting the right person in the right seat on the right bus."

Apparently Bill O'Brien wasn't happy on the Penn State bus.

Social scientists have been studying leadership for centuries. From where do leaders get their power and why do we follow some people but not others? Why do we follow an individual in one situation but not in another? Why do we follow some people each and every time? Are there people who will never lead?

The answer to all of those questions is yes, no and maybe.

Leadership, like people, is quirky. People have individual needs and strengths. People are motivated by different things. People are unpredictable and sometimes, emotional. What we need in a leader can be a moving target.

Leadership theory and the related research examines leadership through different perspectives. There are  the trait theories that support the idea that leadership is innate. In other words, based on physical, personality and other "natural" traits, people have the ability to lead. Behavior theories say that leadership is more about what the leader does than who the leader is or what he or she looks like.

By demonstrating leader behaviors such as support for others, task and goal emphasis and behaviors that encourage group interaction, even if those behaviors vary from person to person, people can learn to be leaders.

Most applicable to the Penn State turmoil are what scientists call the situational theories of leadership.

Others use the term contingency theory. Depending on a variety of factors – the goals, the climate, the tasks, the followers – what is needed in a leader will change.

In the situational theory, leadership is like a chemical compound. All of the elements have to match up perfectly for a leader to emerge. A leader in one situation may not have the right chemistry in another.

The leadership is determined by the situation and what the task and the followers require.

In other words, what we needed from our university leadership in the days and weeks after Sandusky's crimes became international news is different than what we need two years into the unraveling of the mess that he created.

I never met Coach O'Brien but his no nonsense public personality and his lack of prior ties to Penn State, made him a great pick back in 2012. He came to campus with a fresh set of eyes and enthusiasm for the game. For the next two football seasons, he helped to get the figurative Penn State football bus back on the road to success. The team, the fans and most of the Penn State faithful were, to use a phrase from leadership theory, favorable to his leadership style.

For O'Brien, the situation reportedly didn't feel right. The demands of the job off the field and the expectations of the very people who embraced him and his family in our community, to say nothing of those NFL aspirations about which he was quite candid, allegedly made his seat on the bus uncomfortable.

I can't help but think that the uncertainty about the futures of the people to whom he answered also had to play into his decision. Add to that his reported difficulties in understanding the importance of history to his "followers" and it's no wonder that the situation didn't feel like a fit.

Whether or not he misrepresented himself to the coaches he terminated or to the players and recruits will be his burden to carry.

The situation in which we begin the search for our new leadership is different two years in than it was back in 2011. Style, personality, experience, and a history with Penn State are variables that play into the leadership decision very differently today than they did just a short time ago. Similarly, as the search for a new President and perhaps a new Athletic Director continue, our situation has and will continue to evolve.

It's time to bring on the new guy.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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