Taking responsibility

I don’t editorialize in this blog much because I am not very political. I’m registered to vote, but as “no preference” for the party. This post isn’t left, right, red or blue, but I do have some commentary on a trend in public life I find disturbing: the idea of leaders “taking responsibility” when something goes wrong.

It sounds so obvious that a leader should take responsibility for his or her organization that it is almost blasphemy for a leader to deny responsibility. The reality is, though, that in the case of almost all large organizations the leader is NOT responsible for whatever went wrong at lower levels, especially intentional wrongdoing. We have seen politicians, protesters, newscasters and others call for someone’s resignation or firing over something that happened several levels below them and which they knew nothing about. Sometimes it even occurred before that person was the leader, but it only came to light later, during his tenure. Of course the CEO, cabinet secretary, etc. is responsible for running an agency in the general sense, but not in the sense of being blamed for everything that goes wrong. Every large organization has things going wrong every day regardless of who is at the top.

The most recent example is Gen. Shinseki at the Veterans Administration (VA). It’s happened with Hillary Clinton over the Benghazi attack and Gov. Christie over the George Washington Bridge snarl, to name leaders on both sides of the political divide. Opponents of such leaders will always believe it was the fault of the leader – either through intentional malfeasance, negligence or incompetence. Facts will not dissuade them. Similarly for supporters of the leaders, who are unlikely to accept evidence of incompetence or bad conduct. In many cases in politics or business those attacking the leader don’t actually think the leader did anything wrong, but they see an opportunity to bring down a competitor, so the outcry begins or is ramped up. If the facts clearly show the leader knew nothing of the problem, the critics will say he or she should have known. Get real. In an organization of tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, the CEO or cabinet secretary is supposed know everything that every employee does, including the things the employee is taking pains to conceal? Hardly.

I’m not talking about personal peccadillos. Of course the philanderer, drunk driver, or shoplifter is responsible – i.e. blameworthy – for that (although it may or may not be relevant to the person’s job performance, as many European heads of state and their mistresses have shown). I’m talking about cases like the VA, where lower level people concealed major problems from superiors by destroying records about long wait times, a practice that went on long before Shinseki took over. In the case of the VA most of the blame probably belongs to Congress for failing to fund it adequately. They’d rather spend the money on weapons systems that the military doesn’t want or need (because the corporations and unions lobby for them and donate money to their campaigns) than on the veterans who fought for us. Yet Congress will no doubt rake Shinseki or the current administration over the coals for this and demand they “take responsibility.” Similar things happened with car companies and defects that were concealed from the brass. What good would it do to remove a leader in those kinds of situations? For a leader to take responsibility in the best sense, what we want is for the leader – someone in position to rectify a problem and with knowledge of the organization – to get to work fixing it. If you bring in a new leader, that leader will change personnel around, probably putting in people who don’t know the people now below them, and it will take longer to find the problem than it will if you use the skills and knowledge of the current leader(s) to investigate and cause the proper heads to roll, or policies to change.

The news media is largely to blame because they ask every leader “Will you take responsibility?” For once I’d like to hear a politician answer that with a resounding “No, but I’ll fire the ones who are responsible!”