Friday, June 14 2024 - 12:07 PM
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The Buck Stops Here

Responsibility is hard to pin down. It’s easier to point the finger, to play the blame game, to pass the buck to someone else. But responsible people don’t do that. President Harry Truman famously had the phrase “The Buck Stops Here” emblazoned into his desk as a reminder of his responsibility. Responsible leaders accept praise for the good and criticism for the bad. They understand that good outcomes and bad ones are determined by a multitude of factors, but a good leader never passes the buck when things go down.

This was something President Dwight D. Eisenhower thought carefully about. Faced with the responsibility of ending World War II, Eisenhower was prepared to accept responsibility for defeat as well as victory. In one of the most famous unsent messages in world history, Eisenhower was willing to put the blame for failures upon himself.

This was the memo he was going to release if the D-Day invasion failed. “Our Landings… have failed… and I have withdrawn the troops,” he wrote. “My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”

Humility Makes a Difference

It’s hard to imagine this level of responsibility today, but this humility is needed now more than ever. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Bill Taylor says, “We live in a world where ego gets attention, but modesty gets results. Where arrogance makes headlines, but humility makes a difference. Which means that all of us, as leaders or aspiring leaders, face questions of our own: Are we confident enough to stay humble? Are we strong enough to admit we don’t have all the answers?”

The temptation for every leader is to appear confident, to have an answer ready for every problem. But the best leaders never offer formulaic responses. They are willing to wrestle with the issues and admit when they need help. The best leaders don’t force their “answers” on those who disagree; they find a way to work together.

When I was going to school, the assignments I hated most were group projects. I don’t like being dependent on others. I would rather be responsible for my own grade. But a group project necessitates working together. As frustrating as it may be, these assignments build social skills and teamwork that reflect working in the real world.

We Are All Responsible

If the pandemic of Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that group projects are not easy. How do we relate to each other when we see things differently? Pointing the finger and passing the buck doesn’t work. As Abraham Joshua Heschell said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” We all share responsibility when we can’t find common ground.

It can be tempting to look for someone to blame. Conspiracy theories develop from this impulse. But instead of trying to pin guilt to the unseen puppet masters of the world, the more pragmatic response is to own up to our collective responsibility. James Baldwin put it like this, “I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, for the very same reason.”

A Dark Side

We live in a culture that values individuality. But this culture has a dark side. Not everyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The health of a society is not determined by how many billionaires there are, but how it supports its weakest members. It’s easier to pass the buck than face collective responsibility. When things go wrong, it’s easier to give empathy to yourself than to your enemy. It’s easier to find a scapegoat than accept your own responsibility. 

This is what happened during a Chicago Cubs game on October 14, 2003. Steve Bartman was a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan. In 2003, the Cubs were in a 95-year championship drought. Many thought the Cubs were cursed, and the fans were frantic for the team to return to the World Series. Bartman was at game six of the NLCS championship games as the Cubs were leading the series 3-2, and were up by three points in the eighth inning.

Disaster Strikes

Then disaster struck. A foul ball was hit along the third base sideline and Bartman reached out for it. The problem was Cub’s outfielder Moses Alou was also reaching for it at the same time and was not able to make the play. When Alou didn’t make the catch, he slammed his glove to the ground and pointed at Bartman. The cameras zoomed in on Steve’s face and he became an instant scapegoat.
Steve Bartman, who was a lifelong Cubs fan, was booed by the entire stadium. He had beer dumped on him, and he had to be escorted out by security for his own safety. The Cubs lost the next two games and Bartman was blamed for it all. He had to change his phone number, his house was under police security, and the governor of Illinois suggested he enter the Witness Protection Program. Fans chose to put all the blame on Bartman, but Bartman didn’t cause the Cubs to lose the series.

Probe Deeply

The human tendency to find blame is a copout. It’s Adam blaming Eve and is Eve blaming the serpent. It’s Cain killing Abel. It is feeling no sense of responsibility, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The biblical response to that question is yes! We all are responsible. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply.” Confession should never be forced, but there is no greater way to “probe deeply” than honest self-reflection and confession. Take responsibility, the buck stops here. Few are guilty, but all are responsible. 

Kevin McGill writes from the Pacific Northwest.

If you liked this, you may also like I Am Responsible | Take Responsibility for Your Actions 

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About Kevin McGill

Kevin McGill

writes from the Pacific Northwest.

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