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Penn State Scandal

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Destructive Leadership and The Penn State Scandal: A Toxic Triangle Perspective
Christian N. Thoroughgooda and Art Padillab a The Pennsylvania State University, Department of Psychology, 115C Bruce V. Moore Building, University Park, PA 16802; cnt105@psu.edu b The University of Arizona, Eller College of Management, Tucson, AZ 85721
Alderfer’s piece on the Sandusky/Penn State tragedy reminds us that leader-centric analyses, the norm in leadership studies, often miss the mark. Alderfer joins a growing list of writers who increasingly recognize that leadership consists of three key elements in a triangle: leaders, followers, and environments. The Penn State scandal highlights how a conducive environment, typified by centralized power and an absence of checks and balances, coupled with flawed leaders and the actual assistance or quiet submission of certain followers, can lead to disastrous outcomes. As Alderfer observes, leadership is a social, or group, process. Leadership success or failure depends on group results, and group results involve more than just leaders and their characteristics and actions. Yet, over three-quarters of articles in scholarly journals consistently overlook the role of organizational environments and followers (Porter & McLaughlin, 2006), focusing instead on leader traits and behaviors (Kaiser, Hogan, & Craig, 2008; Thoroughgood, Padilla, Hunter, & Tate, 2012).
Why do so many articles and stories focus on leaders and neglect the two other crucial elements in the leadership triangle? The answer seems to involve a fascination with leaders and celebrities, as well as a romantic human inclination to look to the top of organizations for answers (Meindl & Ehrlich, 1987; Meindl, Ehrlich, & Duckerich, 1985; Heifetz & Linsky, 2002). We often ask the question, “Why do people who occupy key positions of power behave as they do?” rather than also asking, “What other factors, in addition to the leader’s traits and behaviors, contribute to destructive results for the group?” In this article, we discuss the Penn State scandal as an example of Padilla, Hogan, and Kaiser’s (2007) toxic triangle of destructive leadership, with a focus on the role of followers and environments.
The Toxic Triangle of Destructive Leadership
Most of the coverage about the Sandusky scandal, as Alderfer notes, has emphasized individuals such as Sandusky, Joe Paterno, and Graham Spanier, the former Penn State president. Just as leadership…...

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