When Leaders Fail
Everyone makes mistakes. In the world of business there is ample opportunity to make bad decisions. Even more so when one is a leader of an organization and has people making decisions on his behalf. Bad decisions are unavoidable. They are going to happen. The questions becomes, how do we respond to them.
Does the leader take responsibility for the decisions of his subordinates? Does the leader make the subordinate bear the brunt of the responsibility? Does the leader share the responsibility?
As early as 2004 General Motors identified a failure in its ignition systems, but chose to do two things. It did not fix the problem because it would take too long and cost too much, and it did not disclose the potentially fatal flaw. As a result organizational leadership spent the next ten years hiding the defect, denying the defect existed, and fighting a movement to recall all makes and models affected by the defect. Ultimately, GM lost and in 2014 ended up recalling over 8 million vehicles having the defective ignition switch and is fined $35 million by the NHTSA.
What is the social consequence? I believe it is a long term degradation of the trust relationship. Not just with the offending department, agency, or company, but in the ability of individuals to enter into a trust relationship with anyone, anything, anytime. To take a military truism and apply it to the private sector, “A leader is responsible for everything that happens, or fails to happen during his tenure with an organization.”
How can we prevent this from happening? By individuals not making mistakes? Since my thoughts on this subject started off with the statement we all make mistakes, this is not a viable alternative. What we have to do is learn to stand up and take responsibility for our mistakes, even if that means we will take the full consequence for the mistake. Taking responsibility and taking the consequence are two separate actions.
Leaders must take responsibility for decisions made by subordinate leaders because the leader is generally the one who is responsible for that person being in that position. They must be prepared to accept their personal consequences and to mete out the natural consequences to the subordinate leader.