The Buck Stops Here…Or Does it?

The Buck Stops HereLeadership’s a tricky thing, and not always all that fun.  Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.  Jamie Dimon might agree, as would Scott Thompson.  All three execs have found themselves embroiled in controversy in the past several weeks.

In the past year, we’ve seen accountability bubble steadily upward after various incidents involving the U.S. military member actions in Afghanistan.  A few years ago, it was the abuse scandal of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.  Always, a rallying call for leaders’ heads is heard.  Sometimes the leaders are punished, other times not.

Who really is to blame when scandals hit organizations?  Well, clearly it depends on the circumstance, but more often than not, I’d argue the leaders are ultimately accountable.  Here’s why…

It’s all about culture.  And culture is all about leadership.

Think about it.  It’s the leaders of any organization who set the direction and feel of an organization.  Sometimes that’s a loose, innovative, free-wheeling culture, and sometimes it’s a hierarchical, authoritarian, “by-the-book” set of standards and norms.  Jack Welch ran GE in a very formalized fashion, whereas Tony Hsieh has a cubicle amongst all the other cubicles at Zappos.  Both organizations (under their respective leaders) are models of successful, profitable machines in their own right.

The ethics and personal values of the individual leader set the tone for the entire organization.  Simply setting policy doesn’t necessarily the culture.  And merely tweeting as CEO doesn’t change the culture.  But when an executive lives, breathes, and preaches a set of values, and ultimately holds subordinate leaders accountable for those same values, culture begins to shift and solidify.

So, do the values of the leader then mitigate any chance of impropriety within the ranks?  Of course not.  Unfortunately, people at all levels will make mistakes, act irresponsibly or without morales, and, in extreme cases, commit atrocities.  And the individual need to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.  The leader, however, does bear some responsibility, in my opinion.

Of course, to take that perspective to the extreme, very few individuals would ever accept leadership roles.  To do so would be akin to career suicide.  Or would it?

You see, perfection within the ranks is not the hallmark of strong leadership.  Mistakes will happen.  Wrongs will occur.  But despite that, leaders who can demonstrate, when such situations rear their ugly heads, that they did everything to promote and champion a positive environment of ethical and morale professionalism will prevail.

The military commanders in Afghanistan should be held accountable for the atrocities committed by their troops on the ground.  But that accountability should come in the form of an investigation into whether or not the culture they individually promoted contributed to the atrocities, or if the atrocities occurred in spite of the culture they championed.  In the former, prosecute the leaders as though they themselves perpetrated a crime.  But in the latter, commend the leaders for the positive and uplifting example of ethical leadership they instilled in the majority of their soldiers and/or employees.

Not everyone follows a leader, but as long as the leader is leading with positive and ethical intentions, that’s all that we can ask.  Where they’re not…..well, that’s a different story entirely.

2 thoughts on “The Buck Stops Here…Or Does it?

  1. I agree with most of this. Where I feel there is some grey area is with 2 points: a) ethics and b) leader setting the tone of the culture. To point a, ethics are in the eye of the beholder. A person may think s/he is doing what is exactly right for the situation or mission but what the person is doing may be completely against another person’s or culture’s ethics. How can one judge if they haven’t been in their shoes? To
    point b, Leaders set the tone… but the followers have to follow said tone which may or may not occur. Therefore, those within the
    cultures…immersed in it…actually choose the
    direction the culture will take. Or as depending on the level of analysis, culture may be integrated on one small aspect, but be fragmented on another depending on the assumptions of the people regardless of leader intent. (as this was typed on my phone, please excuse typos)

    1. Not sure I entirely agree. I believe values are in the eye of the beholder, but ethics are more societally bound and determined. And with regard to leaders setting tone but not being able to control their followers, leaders also have the ability (and the responsibility) to help manage those out who do not fit the culture they are trying to inject into their organization. At the end of the day, to be authentic, the culture of any organization must reflect the values of the leader. Bad does happen. That’s true. But if it happens simply because followers choose not to follow cultural intent, the accountability is more on the follower than the leader, IF the intent is positive and societally appropriate.

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