Great Leaders Accept Responsibility

May 9, 2016 — 1 Comment

statue-53321_1920

 

“No excuse, sir!”

For my entire first year at the U.S. Air Force Academy, those were the three words that came out of my mouth probably more than any other. For a Fourth Class Cadet (freshman), it was the expected answer to any question that began with a “Why.” Even if we knew the answer, the lesson was to never make excuses, never point the finger somewhere else, and to always take personal responsibility.

“Pullins, why is your shirt wrinkled?”

“No excuse, sir!”

“Pullins, why was your classmate late?”

“No excuse, sir!”

“Pullins, why is the sky blue?”

“No excuse, sir!”

It seemed ridiculous sometimes, when there was a perfectly good reason for something, to respond with, “No excuse, sir!” Sometimes it definitely wasn’t fair to have to respond that way, like when something wasn’t my fault. But the point was, it didn’t matter whose fault it was, I was going to take responsibility for fixing it.

It’s natural, isn’t it, to want to fix blame somewhere else when there’s a problem? Especially when we honestly believe that the blame for a problem lies with someone else, that someone else should be held accountable, not us, right?

Our competitive business culture seems to breed the idea that the way to get ahead of the competition, even our peers, is take credit for the good and shift blame for the bad. I used to be fascinated by the first few years of Donald Trump’s “reality” TV show, The Apprentice (when it still featured competition between “real” young business professionals, rather than washed-up celebrities). It was interesting to watch these young go-getters throw each other under the bus in the boardroom, so that someone else would hear the words, “You’re fired,” rather than themselves.

Fast forward to the political debates we’re watching this year, and it feels the same. No one seems to want to claim responsibility for the problems we’re facing as a country. Candidates shift blame to someone else. It’s no wonder leaders who take responsibility and galvanize people to move forward and solve problems together seem hard to find.

Here are some key reasons why it’s crucial that leaders step up and take responsibility, rather than shift the blame, regardless of who is actually at fault.

First, the longer we dwell on who was at fault (no matter how true it is), the longer others will spend defending themselves from accusation and following our lead of finger pointing. I heard a marriage counselor say once, “Husbands, always be the first to say you’re sorry.” I wish I could say that I’ve always practiced that in my own marriage, but I can say that I regret every time I didn’t. My pride got in the way, and instead I drug the person I promised to always love and cherish into a needless battle of wills.

Second, the more time is spent finger pointing, the longer the delay in taking positive action to solve problems and the longer team productivity is lost. Dwelling on the past delays all progress toward a brighter future.

Third, blaming others erodes trust quickly. And trust takes a lot more effort and time to restore than it does to erode. Not only does blame shifting erode trust from our peers and our employees, it also erodes trust from above. How funny it is to think that what our boss really wants to hear is our shifting the blame so that they won’t be upset with us. Do we honestly believe they’d rather hear that than hear us accept responsibility, apologize and start moving ahead and fixing problems? Do we honestly think we make ourselves look god by making others look bad?

Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold our people accountable when they are truly responsible for mistakes or poor performance. But it’s very difficult to get them to willingly own their mistakes when we, their leaders, haven’t modeled that ourselves.

Remember, leaders create culture. Not with lofty vision statements, but by their everyday actions. The opposite of a culture of finger pointing is a culture of accountability. And a leader who won’t take responsibility for outcomes, bad ones as well as good ones, cannot create a culture of accountability. That culture can only for because of the leader, not despite them. If we model for others the courage to take full responsibility, we can create a culture where it’s normative for everyone to have the courage do so.

For discussion:

  • When something goes wrong, do you worry about being blamed or welcome the opportunity to take responsibility and fix the problem?

One response to Great Leaders Accept Responsibility

  1. 

    Well done Jay, good job on this one!

    Chris

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s