The First Denial

The bad news continues to flow from State College, PA, home of the biggest scandal in the history of college sports. Last week the Freeh Report provided 267 pages of evidence that Penn State University officials at the highest levels knew about reports of an ex-football coach’s inappropriate activity with young boys, yet declined to act for fear of bad publicity.

The shameful activity at Penn State was marked by denial at almost every turn over more than a decade, but as I continue to process the news reports and commentary, I believe the first denial was that head football coach Joe Paterno denied his power within not only the football program but also the entire university. For decades, “JoePa” publicly spun himself as a reluctant leader and hero, a down-to-earth everyman. Yet the reality was that over the years, Paterno had gained near-absolute power and unquestioned authority. He could deny or downplay it all he wanted, but that did not change the reality of his power — or mitigate the responsibility that came with it.

I have seen senior ministry leaders exhibit the same denial of their power. Sure, it plays better to downplay your authority: it sounds more humble and makes you seem more accessible to the people you lead. It’s easier to pass things up the chain or off to another and to claim ignorance. But the ever-present danger is that in denying your influence, you also deny and shirk your responsibility, sometimes to harmful if not disastrous effect. One pastor I know continued to deny his authoritative role, pointing to his benign title instead of his real influence, all the way through his fall and deposition for immoral behavior.

If you’re a leader, the simple fact of the matter is that your influence gives you authority. Don’t deny your power. With great authority comes great responsibility, and your first responsibility is to acknowledge your authority.

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