I started my career in the 80s—the 1980s, not the 1880s. However, these days it feels as if there is a century of difference between a few decades ago and today, especially when it comes to responsibility and accountability. I sometimes think (and may be it is true) that the 1980s were the turning point for management in style, attitude and behaviors. We had movies and television telling us that greed was good and that more greed was better. Ethics were “situational” and delegation—working through people to achieve results—was a flowdown of responsibility and accountabilty.

Today many of those same concepts are touted as “the answer” with several degrees of difference. Delegation has become abdication of responsibility and accountability, translating to “If I can get someone else to do the work, I can point at them if something goes wrong.” This wasn’t taught in any of my undergraduate college classes, but it seems that by the time I went to grad school it was seeping into mainstream management philosophy.

Over the past several years in organizations of all sizes, industries and stages, I’ve seen the effects of “delegation” on morale, cohesiveness of teams, organizational behaviors and structures. For all too many managers, executives, business owners, supervisors and “leaders,” the desire to not be responsible or accountable for decisions, results, and people is pervasive.

The Movies of War and History

If you have ever watched a movie with valiant knights, Scottish “rebels,” or soldiers in World Wars I or II, you can see the leaders. You can see them go into battle leading the troops. Leaders were the point of the spear in an attack. They were the rallying point to survivors and believers as comrades died around them. When a battle plan failed, it was the commander, general, lord or rebel leader who bore the burden of failure … and they felt it deeply.

With position and rank came privileges and rewards, but they also bore the risks. Few true leaders of men delegated and abdicated the responsibility. They shouldered the privilege and the burdens alike. If their people failed, they failed. It was the leader who suffered the shame of the loss and bore the grief of his people.

Today Few Are True Leaders

Today true leaders are scarce. The practice seems to be that the leader looks around and makes sure that the blame rolls downhill. As a colleague once put it, “When things go wrong it won’t be the top brass that get shot, it will be the Private or the Corporal.”

Some will say that it is unrealistic to expect a leader to take the responsibility, that our organizations are too large for a leader to know everything. That is true, but misleading. Leaders don’t have to know every detail, but they are responsible for ensuring that those to whom they delegate are capable, share the same values and understand what is expected. A leader is also responsible for making sure his subordinates are adequately equipped with tools, information and communication (up and down the chain of command). A leader is willing to have his followers ask questions, demand answers, challenge assumptions and make command decision where things are happening.

The Gulf Oil Disaster

Today we are three months into the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The initial explosion and deaths were bad enough. The compounding of the disaster and the inability of anyone to step up and get out of the way by delegating command authority to the levels at which decisions need to be made has been even more of a disaster. Rules and regulations, processes and procedures that apply under normal circumstances when there is a day-to-day is routine is one thing; attempting to applythose same rules during a crisis is inexcusable.

Leaders know when to step up and step aside. Leaders know if they can’t be part of the solution and are part of the problem. What is occurring in the Gulf is an example on a large scale of what is occurring in organizations large and small around the country and the world. Abdication has been mistaken for delegation. Leaders are abdicating their role of leadership and sidestepping responsibility. Delegation means giving the authority and ability to make decisions to qualified, knowledgeable people on the front lines of a project. If you don’t trust them to make the best decisions, then you as the leader are at fault for not finding the right people.

Don’t look around as a leader for someone to put in charge so you can have someone to blame. Look around and find a qualified person who will be accountable. Now is the time for good leaders to come to the aid of their companies, organizations, and country. Will you step up?

Author: Lea A. Strickland, MBA CMA CFM CBM GMC

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