President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk in the White House with the phrase “The Buck Stops Here.” The meaning of the phrase is simple. When you oversee an organization, whatever happens in that organization, good or bad, rests on your shoulders. In an address at the National War College in 1952, Truman said “You know, it’s easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you, and on my desk, I have a motto which says The Buck Stops Here – the decision must be made.” This is a cornerstone of great leadership. However, today, there are so many so-called leaders who shirk their responsibilities in this regard.
“It wasn’t my fault” increasingly becomes the mantra for too many leaders today. Whether in government or the private sector, you hear this all the time. When something goes wrong, whether it be a policy issue in government or a business hiccup in the private sector, the blame game starts. It’s my subordinate’s fault. My peers are to blame. Gamma Rays caused the moon to be out of alignment and that is why something went wrong! Everything is to blame except you, the leader. This is diametrically opposed to what Truman talked about.
Leadership has many benefits associated with it. You have the ability as a leader to drive strategic initiatives for the betterment of your organization. You get to lead, mold, and mentor those under your command. You get the benefits of leadership such as a title (Chief, VP, Director etc.) and hopefully the salary that goes with the added responsibilities of leadership. These are wonderful things that you experience as a leader.
But with the good comes the bad. Sometimes your own strategic initiatives fail or don’t bear the intended outcomes you expected. Sometimes one of your subordinates does something unethical that then sheds the spotlight on your organization in a negative light. Sometimes you simply make a mistake and need to course-correct your policy or business decision. It is at these times that you must, as an effective leader, bear the brunt of these missteps. If you are willing to accept the benefits of leadership, you must then accept the burden of taking the blame when things don’t go as planned.
Some leaders will micromanage their subordinates so when the subordinate messes up, they, the leader, can say, they are not to blame. Those who know me know that I can’t stand micro-managers. Constantly looking over the shoulders of your subordinates is not leadership. Yes, your subordinates may not make a mistake with that kind of constant supervision. But they also will not grow and mature their own leadership acumen. I believe in giving subordinates their marching orders, getting regular reports from them as to the status of their work, and letting them do their thing. But when they mess up, and inevitably sometime during your leadership journey, this will happen, you must be willing to take the blame from the higher-ups in the C Suite. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t manage their day-to-day, hour-by-hour activities. They are in your organization, so you must be willing to accept the responsibility for any missteps.
Is it fair? No, of course not. I am not saying that it’s fair that you must shoulder the responsibility for someone else’s mistake. I am also not saying that if a subordinate deliberately did something unethical in your organization or made a bad business decision that set your strategy back, they shouldn’t receive some disciplinary action. They should! But as painful as it is to have the C Suite come down on you for something you didn’t personally do, the buck stops with you! Real leadership means that you are ready, willing, and able to take this added burden and accept responsibility for everything that happens in your organization, good or bad.
Subordinates will not be loyal to or follow a leader who shifts blame. A leader who never says that “it’s his/her fault” but someone else’s. This kind of behavior doesn’t garner trust and goodwill in an organization. Conversely, a leader who will accept the blame and not immediately point fingers at others will earn the respect of those they lead. People respect honesty. If you screwed up, admit it, learn from it, and move on. Take the hit and move on. In today’s world, many leaders will never admit they were at fault for anything. When I see this, they lose my respect. No one is perfect but they pretend to be. And pretenders are not leaders.
In his farewell address to the American people in January 1953, Truman said “The President – whoever he is- has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the decisions for him. That’s his job.” Substitute the word “President” for CEO, CSO, Director, VP and this statement is still applicable.
In your own leadership journey, you will find yourself in situations where you did something wrong and made an unwise decision. Or you are taking the hit for someone in your organization who did something wrong. Accept that this is what comes with true leadership. Life isn’t fair and that includes your business life. But you can take comfort in knowing that when you step up and live the mantra that “the buck stops here,” then you are growing your leadership acumen and maturity. You will be a better leader for it. Truman knew this. Now let’s hope you know this too.