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Leadership: Thoughts on Command Responsibility

Command responsibility is a curse of leadership.  The practical essence of this is it’s the fault of the leader when something wrong happens under his watch.  You are the leader, therefore it’s your fault; it’s ALWAYS your fault!  The concept is simple and particularly convenient if you’re looking for someone to blame for anything and everything that happens.  However if you think about it a little more, then you might see that it’s not as simple as it seems.

I’m reminded of an administrative screw-up that happened some years ago.  The short story here is that my supervisor at the time ended up apologizing for the mistake.  I did appreciate the token of transparency of owning up to the problem and what-not, but I think the apology was unnecessary.  Frankly it even felt meaningless because my supervisor could literally not do anything about it anyway – it really wasn’t his fault, and it didn’t feel right that he would be apologizing for something that wasn’t his doing.  But because he was the supervisor, he assumed command responsibility for the screw-up anyway.  This wasn’t the first time I saw such a situation come up, nor would it be the last.

Call me old-fashioned if you want, but I consider it unjust if one is blamed for something that’s literally not one’s fault.

One scary aspect of leadership in large organizations with units interdependent on one another is being held accountable for an output that is dependent on another team that is responsible for producing their part of the final deliverable, and this other team is literally out of one’s control.  If this other team refuses to have a sense of ownership for their part of the output then this will unfortunately reflect poorly on the leader’s capabilities.  Perception is reality, and so even if it’s literally not the leader’s fault, it still is.  By virtue of being the leader, one ends up owning the work of the other team even if one don’t have to do so, out of a sense of worry to ensure the job is done if not out of a sense of duty.

“What’s the status of (whatever it is you’re following-up on)?”  If the person you’ve addressed this question to answers with a laugh, then you know you have a problem.  The more maniacal is the laugh, the bigger the problem.  [This is based on a true story, unfortunately.]

A leader can be blamed for the fault of another team out of his control.  It can be utterly exasperating and unfair to be in such a situation, and unfortunately for leaders such happens often.  One can only hope that this other team will soon realize that their failure ultimately impacts the organization as a whole – and when everyone is impacted, they are impacted, too.  A leader can only hope that time will come when the truth will come out, hopefully sooner rather than later, and he will not be judged as harshly by his critics.  Unfortunately experience has shown that these things are usually too much to hope for in real life.  Adding insult to injury, oftentimes one is only remembered for the one thing you failed to do when the 100 other good things you accomplished are forgotten.  (I’m both cynical and realistic when I say this.)

Every once in a while mistakes do happen despite the best efforts you put to avoid it.  A leader is held accountable for the problems that the people under him create.  This operates on the principle that the leader is in a position of influence to make things happen, or not happen, as the case merits.  There is truth to this.

However consider this, too: No one really has any control over someone else.  No matter how much you try to coach and guide, to influence someone in a certain way, that person still has a mind of his own and can ultimately still do as he pleases.  At the end of the day you cannot force your will on someone who can make up his own mind.

The quick and dirty solution would be to micromanage the work of people to ensure things are done correctly (in other words, done exactly your way), however this approach has its own perils.  It demoralizes the person for it shows you don’t trust his work.  You also risk stifling innovation; sometimes risks are needed to learn and explore something new.  And it’s in taking calculated risks and learning from such where we make significant leaps and bounds for the better.

At the end of the day, it’s still very crucial to continue to hold your leaders accountable for things under their responsibility.  If you don’t hold people in general, and leaders in particular, accountable for what they’re supposed to do then nothing good will happen.  Mature leaders will acknowledge the mistake and own fixing it.  However also be mature enough to at least try to see the situation from the leader’s perspective; sometimes things are not as simple as it seems, and an understanding and appreciation of the nuances of the situation are just as important to consider.  Besides, you might just realize that, subjected to the same situation, you could not have done any better, and you wouldn’t want to be unfairly criticized for the same.

Moral lesson: Be fair, play fair.

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Categories: Ideas and Philosophy

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