Overcoming the Blame Game


One of the leadership lessons learned in your first management assignment is the responsibility for the actions of others.  While team activities may be a big part of growing up, most academic and extra-curricular activities focus on your individual performance. Grades given by teachers are intended to reflect individual learning and performance.   The team may win or lose but the players generally know their personal statistics and remember well the coach’s feedback about their specific actions. So, the first time you receive negative feedback because someone else performed poorly can come as quite a shock.   


Some emerging leaders embrace this new reality and begin a much deeper journey into the true nature of leadership.  The desired goal is no longer an individual achievement and how will I get rewarded but what is needed for each person on the team to succeed.  This perspective drives young leaders to a new set of questions that will define their leadership.


Unfortunately, many young leaders opt for the more common path based on creating a blame approach to management.  Often, the choice of being a leader who accepts responsibility for those he leads or blames others is greatly influenced by the leadership approach used by his supervisor or what is commonly practiced across the organization.


For some organizations their entire management ecosystem is built around assigning blame.  In a blame culture, you quickly learn how to deflect criticism and assign blame to others. Management review meetings quickly turn into fight or flight exercises.  Project reviews or debriefs devolve into courtroom proceedings with some individuals acting like prosecutors systematically building a case and others speaking like defendants offering plausible alibis.  In a blame culture the primary objective is to get to the end of the day unscathed.   But if you are unsuccessful in that endeavor, you make sure to share the pain with those you lead.  With lightning speed, blame moves to the lowest level of the organization.


In contrast, high performance organizations thrive on feedback and accountability at both the individual and group level and yet don’t play the blame game. These organizations build a culture that feels and behaves differently.   A key characteristic is the high level of trust from senior leadership to the front lines.  


In Admiral William McRaven’s book, Sea Stories, he recounts the leadership lessons learned leading teams operating in highly challenging and fluid situations.  He recounts the story of being awakened one night by one of his direct reports with the news that a group of soldiers had crossed the border in pursuit of a terrorist leader. While the soldiers had good reason to pursue their target, it was an unauthorized move that if discovered could have major diplomatic fallout.  McRaven’s direct report had ordered the men back and had accepted responsibility. McRaven had a meeting in just a few hours with his commanding officer and knew he would need to tell him about the situation.  To make matters worse, McRaven had just started working with his new boss.  He anticipated a rather stern lecture to phrase it politely. 


After sharing the situation and bracing for the response, McRaven received an unexpected reply.  The commanding officer looked up and smiled, and said, “you probably should have let them continue on.” It was McRaven’s first insight into why his commanding officer would go on to have such a great reputation among his men.  McRaven writes, “I would realize that the greatness of his leadership was his ability to shoulder the missteps and even failures of subordinates; to build loyalty through his personal sense of command responsibility.”  The commanding officer knew McRaven and his officers had made a mistake and they would learn from it.   


The culture McRaven described showed each level of the organization to be highly motivated and engaged and willing to take responsibility for their actions.  A high level of trust and commitment operated in both directions across the organization.  This enabled leaders to delegate more responsibility but also to expect that mistakes would quickly be turned into lessons applied to the next mission.