Famously, United States (US) President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk in the White House that read “The Buck Stops Here”.
The saying is a derivative of the expression “pass the buck” which means passing on the responsibility to someone else.
It originates from poker, where a marker indicated whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal, he could pass this marker − “the buck” – to the next player for them to have a go.
Not only did Truman have the sign on his desk, he also referred to it on a number of public statements, saying that when an issue comes to him, he is responsible to make a decision – the buck stops with him.
In his farewell address in 1953, he reiterated this idea: “The President − whoever he is − has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”
Despite his unpopularity, Truman got that bit right. Even though this trivia about his belief has been misused over the years to imply that he took responsibility not just for the decisions he made, but for those of his team, I still feel that this misused version is the one to follow.
Let me explain.
In organisations, there are many moving parts involved and many different levels and layers of decision-making, it is easy to play the blame game – and easy to presume leaders’ non-involvement in any decisions that seem to have negative outcomes.
While it is true that decisions are often made at different levels, as the top leader, one should have known of the details or at least some level of knowledge of the events that have taken place.
If not, something must be wrong in the system.
How often, I wonder, do leaders take accountability for the actions of their teams and organisations?
Soon after the horrendous deep water oil spill in 2010, British Petroleum executives declared that their contractors were the ones responsible for the disaster. That’s an example of shifting accountability.
Its chief executive officer (CEO) Tony Hayward was slammed because of his audacious statements, famously saying: “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back”.
MF Global was a major financial derivatives broker that went bankrupt in 2011. Days before the commodity brokerage giant filed for bankruptcy, its global chief risk officer Michael Stockman appeared before the House committee in the US and avoided answering some questions.
Its chief financial officer, on the other hand, told Standard and Poor that the company’s “capital and liquidity has never been stronger” just a week before the filing. Talk about misleading.
‘Unaware’ of (unethical) issues
Then there was the Volkswagen (VW) emissions scandal in 2015.
Its CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned, saying that, “I am doing this in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrongdoing on my part”.
This was after the company was found guilty of emissions discrepancies of 11 million diesel vehicles globally.
The company had “deliberately programmed” an engine management software that can control emissions when vehicles were being tested.
Cars with this specific device ran up to 40 times more emissions when on the road, away from the testing site. Was he not aware? Well, maybe.
Perhaps it’s best to just accept responsibility like what Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg did in April 2018 when he offered multiple apologies over the data privacy scandal with Cambridge Analytica.
“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry,” Zuckerberg said.
Be aware though, as Zuckerberg is often apologising about his and his company’s actions in retrospect.
In fact, US congresswoman Jan Schakowsky reminded him: “You have a long history of growth and success, but you also have a long list of apologies.”
Gabrielle Adams, professor at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy commented: “When over and over [Facebook] keeps doing things that infringe on user privacy, at some point, apologies become empty words.”
How is it possible to apologise multiply times, and commit similar errors with no evident consequences?
Accountability: an overlooked trait
Let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn’t know any better.
A McKinsey article explains that, “In many large global companies, growing organisational complexity, anchored in strong product, functional, and regional axes, has clouded accountabilities. That means leaders are less able to delegate decisions cleanly, and the number of decision makers has risen.”
The article goes on to explain that multiple modes of communication contribute to reduced high-quality dialogue, and this leads to poor decisions.
In fact, a McKinsey survey found that 72% of the senior executive respondents thought that “bad strategic decisions either were about as frequent as good ones or were the prevailing norm in their organisation.”
“… organizational complexity, murky accountability, and information overload have conspired to create messy decision-making processes in many companies”, says the article.
And perhaps it’s true. These companies are complex enough for us to understand that there may be a chance that the leaders at the very top may not be aware of what decisions are made at lower levels.
The problem with this, however, is that it’s comparable to a parent saying that he was not aware that his son was bullying his daughter because he works a lot. It’s his job to know!
Another report by McKinsey found that over 90% of CEOs deem leadership of their company so important that they are planning to increase investment in leadership development.
It’s not that leadership development doesn’t happen, though, it’s that it probably does not cover certain aspects of the leadership development as it should.
How does one become an effective leader?
In Leaderonomics, it is our view that becoming an effective leader is a process that starts from a young age.
From a young age, an important element that needs to be taken seriously and developed with much dedication is character building.
This is often overlooked in corporate development, as it is not a technical or functional competency that needs to be developed.
However, it is a very crucial element of leadership. In fact, accountability, just like integrity, perseverance, and other similar character traits are key in growing an effective leader.
With this in mind, a good approach is to look for candidates with the right character during the recruitment and succession planning processes.
With that, look for ways to identify and assess people’s character alongside all other criteria that an organisation has.
The structure of an organisation needs to be conducive to ensure accountability – with the right checks and balances in place to empower people to make decisions.
Yet, the top leadership must be in the know of crucial elements that may affect the company as a whole.
The culture and priorities of an organisation can do much to guide its employees and leaders towards the right direction, as can its structure.
An organisation that values certain character traits like accountability and integrity, perseverance, grit and curiosity has to build a culture in which the employees can be guided along the way to behave in this manner.
This can take place through coaching conversations, performance conversations, the language used to communicate key messages, justifications for people getting promoted, and learning sessions designed specifically to educate people on how they need to behave in their day-to-day work.
Just like any other competency, these too, can be measured, learnt and assessed over time.
In a nutshell
Accountability seems more relevant now than ever. It is one of those values that is perhaps considered conservative, yet so crucial and necessary for everyone.
It is time that our community, be it society or the organisation we are in, to pay attention and work towards its enhancement, for the benefit of individuals and the organisation as a whole.
My all-time favourite leader Winston Churchill once said: “We build dwellings and thereafter they build us” – shape your leaders the way you want them to shape your organisation.
The power in your hands.