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Jeffrey Pfeffer
Scholar

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and author of the Sept. 2010 book, POWER: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.

Penn State Coach Joe Paterno

My nominee for the best leader of the year is the coach of the Pennsylvania State University football team, Joe Paterno. His team will be playing in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, 2009, and it won 11 games this year, finishing in the top ten in the national rankings and winning the Big 10 conference championship.

What makes Paterno great, however, was not simply his performance in 2008. It is the fact that, at 82 years of age, after nearly six decades of coaching, Paterno has produced outstanding football teams for longer than many presumably outstanding leaders have been alive, winning more football games, more bowl games, and appearing in more bowls than any other coach in Division 1 college football history.

Yet Paterno is far from being the highest paid college football coach, earning about one-eighth of what Alabama coach Nick Saban earns, for instance. Paterno has not moved from school to school seeking more money or publicity--he has been at Penn State for 43 years, having turned down opportunities to coach Michigan, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the New England Patriots.

Paterno knows what he likes doing -- coaching college athletics -- and he does it very well, graduating his players and running a program that has avoided the scandals that frequently beset college athletics. Penn State's four-year graduation success rate of 78 percent is substantially higher than the 67 percent Division I average.

Anyone can do something well once. It is reasonably easy to capture the public's imagination for a moment. What makes a real leader is the ability to excel even as conditions and social mores change, to produce success over time, and to do so without leaving others behind.

In turbulent times, it seems particularly appropriate to acknowledge the leadership of people who are truly "built to last." For me, Paterno represents something too infrequently acknowledged in American business--sustained, and sustainable, success.

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

 |  December 30, 2008; 10:11 AM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I have to disagree with your pick in one major area. A true leader is always focused on succession planning, preparing great internal candidates to take his/her place when the time comes. Paterno, who has trouble remembering the names of his players at his age (he refers to them by number), stubbornly refuses to let someone else step up to the head coaching position. He is coaching from the press box today because he is too ill to stand on the sidelines. He would be a great advisor to the program or the NCAA; he should groom someone to replace him and offer his advice from a distance while he is still around. A leader also has to know when to step back.

Posted by: blackandgreen | January 1, 2009 12:57 PM
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