“No excuse, sir!”
For my entire first year at the U.S. Air Force Academy, those were the three words that came out of my mouth probably more than any other. For a Fourth Class Cadet (freshman), it was the expected answer to any question that began with a “Why.” Even if we knew the answer, the lesson was to never make excuses, never point the finger somewhere else, and to always take personal responsibility.
“Pullins, why is your shirt wrinkled?”
“No excuse, sir!”
“Pullins, why was your classmate late?”
“No excuse, sir!”
“Pullins, why is the sky blue?”
“No excuse, sir!”
It seemed ridiculous sometimes, when there was a perfectly good reason for something, to respond with, “No excuse, sir!” Sometimes it definitely wasn’t fair to have to respond that way, like when something wasn’t my fault. But the point was, it didn’t matter whose fault it was, I was going to take responsibility for fixing it.
It’s natural, isn’t it, to want to fix blame somewhere else when there’s a problem? Especially when we honestly believe that the blame for a problem lies with someone else, that someone else should be held accountable, not us, right?
Our competitive business culture seems to breed the idea that the way to get ahead of the competition, even our peers, is take credit for the good and shift blame for the bad. I used to be fascinated by the first few years of Donald Trump’s “reality” TV show, The Apprentice (when it still featured competition between “real” young business professionals, rather than washed-up celebrities). It was interesting to watch these young go-getters throw each other under the bus in the boardroom, so that someone else would hear the words, “You’re fired,” rather than themselves.
Fast forward to the political debates we’re watching this year, and it feels the same. No one seems to want to claim responsibility for the problems we’re facing as a country. Candidates shift blame to someone else. It’s no wonder leaders who take responsibility and galvanize people to move forward and solve problems together seem hard to find.
Here are some key reasons why it’s crucial that leaders step up and take responsibility, rather than shift the blame, regardless of who is actually at fault.
First, the longer we dwell on who was at fault (no matter how true it is), the longer others will spend defending themselves from accusation and following our lead of finger pointing. I heard a marriage counselor say once, “Husbands, always be the first to say you’re sorry.” I wish I could say that I’ve always practiced that in my own marriage, but I can say that I regret every time I didn’t. My pride got in the way, and instead I drug the person I promised to always love and cherish into a needless battle of wills.
Second, the more time is spent finger pointing, the longer the delay in taking positive action to solve problems and the longer team productivity is lost. Dwelling on the past delays all progress toward a brighter future.
Third, blaming others erodes trust quickly. And trust takes a lot more effort and time to restore than it does to erode. Not only does blame shifting erode trust from our peers and our employees, it also erodes trust from above. How funny it is to think that what our boss really wants to hear is our shifting the blame so that they won’t be upset with us. Do we honestly believe they’d rather hear that than hear us accept responsibility, apologize and start moving ahead and fixing problems? Do we honestly think we make ourselves look god by making others look bad?
Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold our people accountable when they are truly responsible for mistakes or poor performance. But it’s very difficult to get them to willingly own their mistakes when we, their leaders, haven’t modeled that ourselves.
Remember, leaders create culture. Not with lofty vision statements, but by their everyday actions. The opposite of a culture of finger pointing is a culture of accountability. And a leader who won’t take responsibility for outcomes, bad ones as well as good ones, cannot create a culture of accountability. That culture can only for because of the leader, not despite them. If we model for others the courage to take full responsibility, we can create a culture where it’s normative for everyone to have the courage do so.
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12/30/2016 12:12:46 pm
Mr. Pullins, you have flipped have an honorable principle on its head. There is virtue in accepting responsibility for things that you are responsible for, and sharing responsibility for things you share responsibility for. But accepting responsibility for someone else's wrong-doings is wrong, and at times criminal. You have the advantage of framing the argument. In this case you are the leader. You are the one at the top. But guess what? 90% of people (and 99% percent of those reading this) are not. In this argument you get to be the head coach -- "when succeed - you did it, when we fail, I did it." That's not reality. The soreness of this article is that it doesn't even follow it's own logic. Take accountability for example. This article seems to pounce accountability as if it were this week's recyclables. In an early example, you took responsibility for a classmate's tardiness. Is that right? Were you the class leader? Were you charged with ensuring that all class members knew what was expected of them in terms of class attendance for that session? If not, what you did was wrong. Own it! After this, the argument gets so diluted and logically detached that I can't continue a counter.
1/1/2017 09:25:48 am
1/2/2017 09:52:11 pm
Good article. Independent of who is responsible/to blame, great leaders look for and implement solutions, rather than playing monday morning quarterback or trying to belittle those who caused the problem in the first place.
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Jay Pullins has been leading and developing leaders in a variety of settings for over 30 years. He has a diverse background as a leadership coach, military officer, an appointed state official, and executive leader of Alaska's largest church. Jay has trained over 1,400 leaders in the last five years, from Alaska to Southern California, in various fields from universities to military, construction, product distribution, manufacturing, telecommunications, churches, banks, casinos, and a railroad.