Empty Suits can’t Handle Blame

I’m not exactly a people person.  When I got my first middle management job, I bought several books on leadership.  I realized that I didn’t know squat about how to motivate and lead people, so I tried to get some insight into people who had successfully done so or had studied those who did.  I still don’t fancy myself that good a leader, but one thing stuck in my head.  Every book that I read insisted that an indispensable part of leadership is accountability.  A few examples (all emphasis mine).

Leadership is not a paycheck. Leadership is a calling. You have to want to lead with all the caring and energy of Ernest Shackleton conquering Antarctica or Moses parting the Red Sea. And you have to be accountable—no blame game is acceptable. The buck stops at the tip of your nose.

Level 5 leaders look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well (and if they cannot find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck). At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming bad luck when things go poorly.

When his generals performed well, Lincoln gave them the credit; when they performed poorly, Lincoln took the blame. Lincoln expert Donald T. Phillips acknowledged, “Throughout the war Lincoln continued to accept public responsibility for battles lost or opportunities missed.”‘

Refusal to accept blame, pointing fingers at others, and wimpy language can help bosses keep their jobs for a while, but it usually backfires in the long run. No matter what is said, bosses are seen as responsible for what their people do.

The accepting of responsibility is part and parcel of a true leader.  It’s not, of course, the only thing that makes a good leader, but it is not an optional characteristic.

Someone should send that memo to the current occupant of the White House.  It’s almost a cliche that, in football, the quarterback gets more than his share of blame for a loss, and he also gets more than his share of credit for wins.  What’s true for a football player is true for any leader, from the line supervisor at the plastic bottle plant to the President of the United States.  He does a fine job of taking credit for the win, but when things go bad, he’s not so quick to step up.  He has repeatedly blamed problems on the previous administration, congress, the arab spring and tsunami in Japan, and even ATMs.

It’s long been a running joke in the conservative blogsphere, but now that he’s starting to blame the voters, even progressives are starting to notice.   Jon Stewart has a few riffs.

Last night the president used rhetorical flourishes to say that his election was never about him, but “you.” As in, EVERYONE. So when Obama said that “you” are the reason people have a better future ahead of them, Stewart suspected that the president was trying to push all the responsibility on the people so then he could blame them for “the shitty stuff that hasn’t been done.”

Stewart concluded by remarking that the American people need to be grounded, and “maybe the only person who could have done it was the one who put all that air under our feet in the first place.”

Even Marueen Dowd gets in:

In his renomination acceptance speech here on Thursday night, he told us that America’s problems were tougher to solve than he had originally thought.

And that’s why he has kindly agreed to give us more time.

Because, after all, it’s our fault.

Four years ago, the country elected a man with minimal experience and minimal record.  He was a good-looking guy who gave a good speech, but who had no record to savage.  He was a historical selection, the first black US president.  He was a feel-good vote in an election that would have been almost impossible for a democrat to lose.  He was also a blank slate upon which voters could cast their own views.

What he was not and is not, is a leader.


About VPJ
Not particularly smart, witty, or good-looking. Otherwise perfect.

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