Surma’s Cool Communications and Precision Navigates the Penn State Debacle
John Surma has been president and chief executive officer of US steel since 2004, yet until a couple of days ago, wasn’t a household name. However, Mr. Surma is also vice-chairman of the board of trustees for Pennsylvania State University and had the unenviable task of managing the public announcement that legendary head football coach Joe Paterno was being relieved of his duties, effective immediately.
The fact that the move was not unexpected did little to dampen the hostility of the assembled “media” who swarmed the briefing chaired by Surma. I put the quotes around the word media because, from my observation, this was less about journalism and finding out what happened than it was about inciting a fury over the dismissal of “their” coach. When you are in a position of authority, fielding tough questions from a sometimes surly media comes with the territory. Facing a lynch mob mentality, which in my humble opinion is what Surma had to step up and handle, is something entirely different.
That is what made Mr. Surma’s performance so impressive. Despite the obvious attempts to goad him into a hostile exchange, he didn't take the bait, kept to the facts and remained on message. He made it clear to everyone watching in the room and on television, and listening on the radio, that the board of trustees is going to do what is in the best, long-term interests of the university; and that the university and its community are bigger than the athletics program.
Whether or not Surma felt the urge to lash out at the assembly or, perhaps, even go over the table at some of them, we’ll never know. What we do know is that he was restrained, measured in his remarks and never put the university at further risk, noting several times that there was still an ongoing investigation. There was a fine line that needed to be navigated in showing that the trustees would not rush to judgment, yet would take action and not sit idly by and watch things spiral out of control. So while we may quibble as to whether or not 10:15 pm was the right time to make an announcement of this magnitude, we can probably also agree that establishing a voice of leadership was of paramount importance.
There are sure to be some tough days ahead at Penn State, but they should take comfort in knowing that they have strong leadership in place to help guide them through. Sometimes being a leader is making the unpopular decision that you know is right and standing by your convictions. Mr. Surma and the board showed that they are not afraid to make a tough decision in the best interest of the school, no matter how unpopular it may be.
Above all else, and we were reminded of this throughout the press conference, a university is first and foremost a place of higher learning. Not to be lost in the emotion of the moment is the life lesson delivered to the students of Penn State by their board. In the real world there are consequences to our actions. In the real world when egregious acts are committed and leaders fail to act, people, and sometimes even legends, get fired.
Agree? Disagree? Would appreciate hearing what you think about how the Penn State board handled this matter.