Paterno, Hoover, and Jones’s First Law

Would Uncle Walt have resisted the curse of Jones's First Law?

Jones’ First Law, one of many useful corollaries to Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will.”) is usually stated:

“Anyone who makes a significant contribution to any field of endeavor, and stays in that field long enough, becomes an obstruction to its progress – in direct proportion to the importance of his original contribution.”

This week was a good one for Jones (whoever he was; I can’t seem to find out) if not for the rest of us, because two classic examples of his principle were on display:  Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who managed to stay coach long enough to unravel his legacy and help lay the groundwork for an ethical, moral, legal, public relations, and financial catastrophe for the institution he had dedicated his life to, and J. Edgar Hoover, the subject of a newly-released Clint Eastwood directed film that shows how he too stayed long enough as the key figure of an institution he built—the FBI—to become an embarrassment to it.

Why this happens so often—the list is depressingly long, including such luminaries as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, William Paley (CBS),  Hugh Hefner, Al Capp, William Aramony (United Way), Edwin Land (Polaroid), Connie Mack (the Philadelphia Athletics), Woody Hayes (Ohio  State), Frank Sinatra, William Jennings Bryan (the Democratic Party), Jesse Jackson, Charles M. Schultz, Bobby Knight, Willie Mays, Helen Thomas, Ralph Nader, Charles de Gaulle, Jonas Salk, J.D. Watson, Gen Curtis LeMay (U.S. Air Force), Franklin D. Roosevelt, most of the original Hollywood movie studio heads, every mob boss, and too many more to mention—is a perplexing example of the human failure to learn the lessons of history when accepting that lesson means giving up power, celebrity, and influence. Many of those who fall victim to Jones’s Law are founders, like Hoover, and come under a sub-category called Founder’s Syndrome. Others, like De Gaulle, are leaders who fail the final test of leadership: know when to give it up, and how to help the next leader take over. Those who have avoided Jones’s Law are often fortunate in an ironic way—they die while they are still at their peak, like Walt Disney.

The problem is that advancing age, non-ethical considerations and multiplying rationalizations often combine with their iconic status to stop a Paterno or a Hoover from doing what younger versions of themselves would have conceded as unavoidable:

  • Their skills are diminishing, but vanity, ego and fear keep them from admitting it, even to themselves.
  • Bias causes them to believe that no potential successors can do a better job.
  • They equate quitting their life’s work with dying.
  • They see changing conditions that they are not equipped to adjust to as problems to be conquered rather than unavoidable realities.
  • They feel that their service and accomplishments entitle them to their position as long as they want to stay in it.
  • They become incapable of seeing themselves and the organization’s needs objectively, and refuse to respect the advice of those who can.

The end result of Jones’s Law is often tragedy with many victims, as in the case of Joe Paterno. Every founder, leader, pioneer, ground-breaker, sports star and living legend should have Jones’s Law framed and prominently placed over their favorite mirror, where they can be reminded of it every day. Then they can develop the habit of asking themselves, bravely and sincerely, every day of their lives, “Is it time to leave?”

The answer becomes “Yes!” a lot earlier than most of hope or think. If Joe Paterno’s fate can help teach the next generation of leaders that lesson, then something good will have come out of the Penn State fiasco,

9 thoughts on “Paterno, Hoover, and Jones’s First Law

  1. I think it’s all ego. “I had the idea, I made it happen, I made it successful, and I deserve to be here until I die.” I think you ask a lot of this kind of leader, Jack, though your points are well made. But don’t you also think that this genius (of whatever kind) leads these people directly to Raskolnikov and the “extraordinary man” theory? I’m not at all sure that some internal “alarm” will indeed go off, simply because, in their way, they are in fact extraordinary men?

    Unfortunately, this kind of ego (or lack thereof, in, say, Richard Nixon’s case, a firm belief in his own inadequacies despite his achievements) always, always, leads to the denigration of the ideas/institutions/beliefs they created. It sounds simplistic, but I honestly think it’s up to their institutional “heirs” to clean up their act and bring their missions back on point.

  2. As bad as this cover up was, I’m sure there are many more just like it. Maybe even worse! They were protecting their program over the welfare of those kids; a sad truth. We’re not proving them wrong either. Some people want them to cancel the rest of the season. I’ve even saw someone say they should close the program all together. As if everyone in the organization was responsible. Meanwhile people are behind the scenes taking notes right now. There are other scandals out there, other cover ups. We don’t even know how many victims there are in this case, less known trying to fully identify the ones listed. If were not careful in the way we seek justice here, this could repeat, only next time it won’t get out because they will work even harder to not end up like Penn State.

    • You are right, of course. The reason this is especially ominous is that Paterno really IS better than 99% of college coaches….and this happened to him. Imagine what else is out there. If you dare.

  3. That’s a great list of “the fallen.” Is it possible that communications technologies have advanced to enable such speed, granularity, sheer sensual impact, and yes, vulnerability to corruption, that we may be seeing the passing of an era when such “Jones-town” tenure is virtually unattainable?

    Or, is mythology-manufacturability only beginning to make things even worse – enabling fewer “violators” of Jones’s First Law to endure even more and longer sieges but, being fewer, thus enabling them to hold even larger populations and treasures captive to their overreaching power and influence, even longer past their due time to move aside?

    I see Jones’s Law forebodings in the successes of more than a few present day persons who may be viewed widely and esteemed highly as pioneers, founders, or leaders of this or that. But I am saddened, despite wishing not to be, because in seeing those forebodings, I do not see (or foresee) an “ethics revival” eventuality in our culture – only a vicious, painful-for-all spiral into an anarchic, “ethics-free zone,” ripe for exploitation by the most capricious and brutal tyrant.

    On the lighter side, “…every mob boss,…” – caused me to laugh out loud, in delight of the truth of it as I have learned it. I only recently read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather; it only took me about 40 years to get around to that book. Reading it was like watching, in slow motion, the movie I have probably watched more times than any other. Still, reading was useful for filling in the characters’ thought processes – plausible background to the plots and the actions (re-packaged as they were, and excellently, in my opinion, in the movie). I will probably watch the movie one more time soon, then skim the book one more time shortly thereafter, slowing down only on those key background passages to compare those thought processes to my own.

    I wish I could feel more hopeful for “heirs” of our ethics culture. Now, I am remembering the end of another movie, Patton, and the voice of George C. Scott describing the Roman slave’s admonition to his master, at the height of the victory parade, that “…all glory is fleeting.”

  4. Jack, in your list of people you felt should have retired earlier, you included Charles M. Schultz.. I don’t get it. The shortcomings of some of the other figures you name are pretty obvious, and I see immediately why they’re included. But why is Charles Scultz on that list? I’m not arguing, I’m just curious why he’s included. I’m no expert on this career; I just always kind of enjoyed his comic strip, “Peanuts,” and don’t remember him doing anything wrong, offhand. Su I’m just a little curious.

    • Yikes. Schultz’s decline as a cartoonist had already begun in the late ‘Sixties. Speculation was that it started when the strip was commercialized, or stopped being about kids and theology and began being a talking dog strip. Various points where “Peanuts’ was thought to have “jumped the shark” were when Snoopy started walking on two legs; when the Red Baron theme became popular; after the musical acme out. In any event, I recall in 1969 laughing at a Peanuts cartoon and thinking that it was the first funny one in years.
      Bill Watterson (of Calvin and Hobbes) and Gary Larson both reportedly retired at their peaks for fear of traveling in Schultz’s path, going decades with a strip that had lost its verve and spark because it was too lucrative to stop,

      Actually, Schultz was one of the first people I though of for the list!

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