Like millions of other Americans, I’ve been transfixed by the recent Penn State football scandal which (so far) has led to the ouster of iconic Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, the president of the university, and several other officials.
First of all, I’m sorry for the kids (now young adults) who were (allegedly, probably, likely) abused and violated by the sexual predator. Nothing we say can replace what was taken from them.
Second, I think this story is about more than the crimes of one person or the terrible leadership decisions of a university administration. This story is about what goes wrong inside any large organization when people get too entrenched, too comfortable, too arrogant, and start to believe that they are “too big to fail.”
When someone gets worshiped as a hero for coaching a football team, this kind of cover-up and lack of accountability is going to happen sooner or later – because all too often, power corrupts. Power and unquestioning adulation brings arrogance. Arrogance, without accountability, leads to suffering.
The Penn State story is not just about college football and it’s not just about one institution. This is the latest in a line of several damning failures in America’s large, powerful institutions. In the past ten years since I graduated from college, we’ve seen the fall of Enron (which all the stock market analysts said was a great company with a bright future!), the fall of WorldCom (same story as Enron, on an even grander scale!), the Iraq War (we went there to protect America from weapons of mass destruction which turned out not to exist!), the housing market collapse (all the analysts and ratings agencies said that the sky was the limit! Never been a better time to buy!), the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008, and on and on. Not to mention the sexual abuse scandal and decades of attendant cover-ups within the American Catholic church (although that is not just an American problem – from what I’ve read, it sounds like Ireland’s Catholic sex abuse scandal was even worse).
I’m not the only one who feels this way. Grantland columnist Charles Pierce wrote about Penn State that the scandal is “not a failure of our institutions so much as it is a window into what they have become — soulless, profit-driven monsters, Darwinian predators with precious little humanity left in them. Penn State is only the most recent example. Too much of this country is too big to fail.”
In writing this, I’m not trying to pass blame or cast judgment or second-guess the actions of individuals. I’m trying to argue that the kinds of abuses of power, the kind of arrogance where a football coach and his staff decide to shelter a pedophile and give him access to the team weight room rather than call the police, is inevitable when we place too much trust in big, powerful institutions and the big, powerful individuals who lead them.
We need to be less reverent and deferential towards authority figures. Instead of worshiping “heroes” who then fail to perform the most basic acts of human decency and fairness, we should each strive to become our own “hero.” Instead of thinking that someone is a good person based on the evidence that they win football games or hold a certain job title or present themselves well on television, we need to question authority and relentlessly ask, “Who made you the boss?”
This sense of skepticism and mistrust of large institutions, this unwillingness to submit to hero worship or assume that the “big boss” on high knows what’s best for me, is a big part of the reason why I decided to start my own business.
One of the thousands of things that used to annoy me about working at a big company were the times where an auditorium full of people would applaud politely for some senior executive’s platitude-filled presentation, without ever asking any tough questions.
Or moments where we’d be walking in the hallways or sitting in a presentation, and a colleague would gesture to some executive across the way and furtively whisper, “Hey, there’s Melvin P. Humperdink! He’s a real up-and-comer – a good guy to get to know!”
As if, just by tangentially knowing about Melvin P. Humperdink, my own prospects and the prospects of my team would be somehow enhanced – like we could all bask in his reflected glory and be made richer for it.
To that I say, “Who cares?” People used to say the same reverential, cloying things about Enron CEO Jeff Skilling and his fellow federal prison inmate CFO Andrew Fastow. Instead of worshiping heroes and hoping to hitch our wagons to star performers and high-flyers, I’d rather see more people decide to start a business and create something for themselves.
Am I saying that all CEOs and football coaches and politicians are inherently corrupt and evil, and we should just ignore all of them? No. There are people in the halls of power who try to do the right thing. There are CEOs who are worth admiring. There are big institutions that are still worthy of respect. What I’m saying is:
- If you’re the kind of person who chafes at the layers of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that suffocate daily life at your typical large organization…
- If you’re tired of the “Great Man” theory of management where people who aren’t any smarter or better than you get to have control over your family’s financial future, just because they’ve got more seniority and wear more expensive clothes…
- If you’re fed up with the stupidity and arrogance of institutions and powerful individuals who get treated with worshipful deference, only to fail us miserably, time and time again…
Then maybe you should start your own business.
Running a small business is the polar opposite of being in a large entrenched organization. Instead of arrogance and covering-your-backside and never saying anything risky, and never getting to make a meaningful contribution to anything important, and biding your time until 20 years from now when, maybe, you can get promoted to your boss’s job…being an entrepreneur encourages and demands you to be curious, open, collaborative, generous, humble, proactive and positive.
It’s a night and day difference. The difference between having a big corporate job and running your own business is like the difference between life under Soviet Communism and life in 1960s “Swinging London.” It’s the difference between being locked inside a drab-but-comfortable Ivory Tower and being out on the street, in a crowded, bustling marketplace full of color, sights, scents and music. It’s the difference between being trapped in a windowless grey cubicle (which is all that the Wise Men of the organization feel you deserve, based on your salary and commensurate experience) and feeling sunlight on your face, every day. It’s like going from seeing in black & white to seeing in full, vibrant color. It’s like going from an atmosphere of paranoia and scarcity, where everyone is trying to protect their own little turf, to a place where people are all trying to “grow the pie” and create bigger opportunities for everyone.
Being an entrepreneur means never being “too big to fail” – and that’s a good thing. Most true entrepreneurs don’t want to get too big – they don’t want to get entrenched. They’d rather sell the company and go do something else rather than have their daily life turn into bureaucratic molasses.
Would you rather be running a small, scrappy, inventive, growing company, or clinging desperately to power and hanging on to an exalted job title at a big, bloated organization that has lost its financial (and moral) compass? The question answers itself.
This is one of the greatest miracles of the Internet: we don’t need to rely on “Great Men” and big organizations anymore to give meaning to our lives or pay our salaries. Just as we no longer need nightly news anchors to give us our news, and we don’t need late night talk show hosts to tell us what’s funny, we don’t need to gaze hopefully at movie stars or CEOs or big-time football coaches to inspire us. The Internet makes it possible for each of us to find inspiration and become a leader in our own unique niche areas of interest. Whatever you do, you can become the “Joe Paterno” of that field (but without the disgrace). Be your own hero. Instead of being part of an anonymous mass audience, you can be the star on the stage.
Sure, most people might not be ready for this. Most people might want to have the traditional comforts of “job security” and the belief that smart people on high are looking out for them, and that they’re part of a big team that is doing something meaningful. If that describes you, then good luck and godspeed.
But for the rest of us, we don’t need those old structures and trappings and institutional theater. We can do better for ourselves – and make a bigger difference for the communities we care about – by starting a business. Instead of top-down hero worship, where a stadium of 100,000 people cheers on one guy, or where one lavishly-compensated CEO speaks to an audience of thousands of lower-paid worker ants, we can each create our own little world of collaborative, interactive, one-to-one team building and relationship building and value-generating.
More than ever before, we all have easy, instantaneous access to new ways of working online, new ways of connecting with customers, new ways of creating value and bringing wonderful new ideas and products and services into the world. We’ve just barely begun to scratch the surface.
So yes, by all means, let’s investigate the failures of our institutions and direct a new eye of scrutiny towards our formerly sacrosanct authority figures. Let’s hold them accountable for their failings. But after that, what are you going to do? I say: build something that is truly your own. Create your own future. Become your own hero. Start a business.