At one point in our not-too-distant past, we could look to our leaders as models of judgement and responsibility.
They weren’t flawless. They made imperfect decisions with incomplete information. They recognized there was a good chance a majority of people would disagree. But whatever the outcome, they shared credit if it turned out well and took the blame if it didn’t.
As former president Harry Truman was fond of saying, “The buck stops here.” He even had a sign with the saying on his desk in the Oval Office.
But based on some recent examples, it seems like Truman’s advice isn’t being heeded. Public figures have taken passing the buck to new levels in the past few months. And it points to a troubling gap in the education and development of organizational leaders.
In May, scandal-plagued Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens resigned from office. Rather than pointing to his own marital infidelity and subsequent behavior, he blamed others for driving him from office. Mirroring President Trump’s favored phrase, he took to calling the accusations against him as part of a “witch hunt” by his political opponents.
Topping Greitens in the blame game, Roseanne Barr passed the buck to sleep aid Ambien for her racist Twitter comment about former White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. That late-night tweet led ABC to cancel her No. 1-ranked TV show and Sanofi, the drug’s maker, wryly responding that racism is not one of the known side effects of the medication.
You could argue that the case is different when it comes to business. In the worlds of Hollywood and politics, there’s no real qualification for leadership other than popularity. If you can entertain people or get elected, then you’re in. There’s no formal leadership development plan, 360 review or detailed personality assessment.
Look no further than your local Starbucks to see that the problem plagues business, too. One manager’s judgement lapse in calling the police to remove two African-American men from a Philadelphia shop led to a massive corporate fiasco that cost the company millions of dollars and untold hours of labor. Or look at United Airlines, whose employees exercised poor judgement when they called police to forcibly unseat a passenger whose only offense was that he refused to give up the seat for which he had paid in full.
From a technical standpoint, employees followed the rules in both cases. If you’re going to sit in a Starbucks you should be a customer and if you’re a United passenger you have to be willing to give up your seat even if you’ve paid for it. But that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. That’s where judgement comes in.
You could further argue these instances of poor judgement aren’t executive development problems. Executives need to be focused on the big picture, working out the growth strategy and ensuring the business operates efficiently. Leave the details to managers.
The fallout to both situations illustrates how that can work out. In United’s case, their tepid corporate response and CEO’s ham-handed effort to simultaneously defend the policy while also admitting fault floated like a lead balloon. The company remained the butt of jokes for months.
Starbucks had a better response. They immediately recognized the damage the situation caused and responded with a forceful statement from the CEO taking responsibility. Closing all company-owned stores for an afternoon of unconscious bias training may not be effective in driving real change but it is an effective public relations move. Even skeptical customers gave the company credit for the effort.
Employees’ personal judgement across the organization is a business problem and it is the responsibility of executives, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not. That makes it the responsibility of chief learning officers, too.
It’s about more than dollars and sense, business acumen and acuity. Don’t get me wrong: Developing sophisticated business skills and acumen is necessary. But that should come along with ample opportunities to develop the kind of judgement that prepares them to lead in a dynamic and increasingly fraught business environment.
With that focus in mind, we dive deep into the state of executive education in this issue. Done right, it helps leaders find their way to a healthy bottom line. But it also recognizes there’s a right way to do it.
For learning executives, there’s no passing that buck. The responsibility is on your shoulders.