The buck stops with you

There is loads of literature that talk about owning problems.

Sam Hlabati

They point to the fact that the best way to ensure a problem is solved is to own it through to resolution; so goes the advice from leadership thought leaders.

Leaders are always telling their followers that they have to own the issues they are handling through to resolution; particularly so if the issues relate to a customer. This concept talks to the core of taking responsibility.

Let us, from the onset, describe responsibility as a duty or obligation to satisfactorily perform or complete a task; assigned by someone, or created by one’s own promise or circumstance, that one must fulfil, and which has a consequent penalty for failure.

A good quality of leadership is the assumption and acceptance of responsibility for all decisions taken by a leader within the organization.

Every leader is also responsible for making strategic decisions within the leader’s responsibility rather than avoiding or abrogating this responsibility.

What kills the culture of taking responsibility is the existence of a culture of blame and recrimination.

A leader in a culture of responsibility takes responsibility and shares the credit.

Phrases such as the “The buck stops here” and “If you can’t stand the heat, you better get out of the kitchen” were popularised by former US President Harry S. Truman (May 8, 1884 — December 26, 1972), who was the thirty-third President of the United States (1945-1953).

As vice-president, Truman succeeded the popular Franklin D. Roosevelt. Upon assuming the presidency, Truman asked all the members of Roosevelt’s cabinet to continue in office.

He told his cabinet that while he was open to their advice, he would make policy decisions around the cabinet table. Once he had listened to everyone’s advice and made a decision, he expected that every cabinet member would support his decision.

Truman’s desk top sign
In several of his speeches, President Truman referred to his desk sign “The buck stops here.” In an address at the National War College on December 19, 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 has to be made.”

This principle started when a colleague of President Truman, Fred M. Canfil, a United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri, saw a sign with the inscription ‘The buck stops here’ while visiting the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma.

Canfil asked the Warden if another sign like it could be made for President Truman. The sign was made and sent to the President on October 2, 1945.

‘The buck stops here’ derives from the expression ‘passing the buck’ meaning passing the responsibility on to someone else. ‘Passing the buck’ is in turn comes from frontier poker games where the players used a knife with a buckhorn handle as the dealer’s marker.

A player who did not wish to deal could pass on the responsibility to the next player, thereby by passing the buck – as the marker came to be called.

Buck passing or passing the buck is the act of attributing another person or group with responsibility for one’s own actions.

It is often used to refer to a strategy in power politics whereby a state tries to get another state to deter, or possibly fight, an aggressor state while it remains on the side-lines.

In the corporate organisations, there is a tendency of leaders passing the buck, attributing unpopular decisions to the higher level leaders; thus blame it all on the General Manager, on the CEO or the Board.

The buck stopping at a particular point is an acknowledgment that the incumbent of a position has to make the decisions and accept the ultimate responsibility for those decisions. It is rather disturbing that a leader would deliver a message to their team in which they say that “these are the orders from above”.

Such an approach to leadership is taken by those who think that they can shift the blame to someone else. Hear me dear leaders, the moment you attribute decisions to the ones above you, you are telling your team that you do not have any form of power as their leader; that is totally disempowering oneself.

You may as well leave the leadership role.

Humans; consciously and unconsciously; constantly make judgments about other people. The psychological criteria for judging others may be partly ingrained, negative and rigid indicating some degree of grandiosity.

Blaming provides a way of devaluing others, with the end result that the blamer feels superior, seeing others as less worthwhile making the blamer “perfect”. Off-loading blame means putting the other person down by emphasizing his or her flaws.

Do organisations need leaders who are always putting down those above them; that is a the corporate world equivalent of treason.
The leader who always attributes unpopular news to others will never get the best done by their team.

Their biggest undoing is that they do not get to challenge any decisions that they are asked to execute by their superior, for they are always looking for someone to blame. Some systems theorists and management consultants state that in a blame culture, problem-solving is replaced by blame-avoidance.

The tendency to not own the decisions that one has to implement in one’s team as leader leads to scapegoating of the organisation and higher leadership to whom all blame is ascribed.

In ancient Greece, a cripple or beggar or criminal was cast out of the community, either in response to a natural disaster, such as a plague, famine or an invasion or in response to a calendrical crisis such as the end of the year.

Someone had to be sacrificed because society could not accept that something undesirable could just happen without blame passing to someone else. In religion, the goat for Azazel was a goat that was designated to be outcast in the desert as part of the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement.

The question is why organisations should keep leaders who scapegoat the whole organisation or the decisions that are reached to move the organisation forward.

Reality Check !, Have you ever had to address your team about an issue which they were not happy about and had to say that the decision came from above therefore there was nothing you could do.

The message that would go down to the team is that although you did not believe that the idea is good, you nevertheless decided you would go with the idea. What a team looks for is a leader who can advocate their cause; defending positions that need be defended, otherwise step down.

There are few things that could be more demoralising that a team leader who occupies a position that is crucial in advancing the beliefs and needs of the team and yet fails to do so.
It is even more demoralising to have such leader then openly admit to their failure at doing the job, by shifting the blame for decisions elsewhere.

The mandate of a leader includes among other things, the responsibility to ensure that the decisions from above them in the organisational hierarchy are carried out to levels of optimal efficacy.

The leader has the responsibility to ensure that in the event of decisions that are not practical within the context of the team’s operations; such decisions are challenged before they are taken down to the team level.

It is a disservice to the organisation for a leader to accept decisions that are not practical simply for the sake of agreeing with those above them. Organisation time is wasted with the leader going to the team with a decision that will either not get the support of the team or will not be practical.

In plain English, to become a leader, and especially, a powerful leader, one must take full responsibility for their actions and choices; all of them. When one tries to cover up a mistaken action or a bungled decision making process, one avoid the opportunity to draw a lesson from what went wrong, and to improve something as a consequence: a skill, a method, a way of acting or reacting.

Since we are all human, let us be aware of the first knee-jerk response we humans have is to shift the responsibility to someone else. We all try to shield ourselves from the logical consequences of our actions. By making up an excuse or blaming an outside source, one creates the illusion that the world; not them; needs correction; whereas the reverse could most probably be true.

It is very tempting to lay the fault elsewhere; however remember; it is better to be the agent of change than the victim of change.
And the choice is yours. Everyday, train yourself to lift your chin and straighten your spine, take a deep breath, and take the responsibility for all the action or decisions which you deliver; no matter how sloppy.

Sam Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail samhlabati@gmail.com; twitter handle; @samhlabati

2 thoughts on “The buck stops with you”

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  2. tk says:

    thanx for the article. Its an eye opener. At work i have some supervisory or leadership role and i was in the habit of saying to my team, this is wat management said and dont blame me if anything goes wrong. It is a bad comfort zone as u explained. I m ready to change although i know its difficult to leave old ways which are seemingly beneficial. I will endeavour to take responsibility

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