Great Leaders Don’t Pass The Buck


The buck stops here” is a phrase that was popularized by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who kept a sign with that phrase on his desk in the Oval Office in the White House. At that time, the phrase referred to his notion that when he made decisions, that he had to accept responsibility for those decisions. That is, he couldn’t pass the blame for bad decisions onto others yet keep the credit for good decisions to him. He couldn’t pass the buck, or play the blame game and state that someone else was responsible for the decision he made.

Since that time, this phrase has become even more popular since most people know that when you use the phrase it means that the buck stops with that person. If you are a leader it even seems to mean that not only are you willing to take responsibility for your own decisions and actions but you are also willing to assume responsibility for the decisions and actions made by those who report to you, whether you want to or not. That is the measure of leadership and what you agree to when you take on the job.

In today’s world with all the challenges that leaders are now facing, it is probably more critical than ever before to accept responsibility for your actions and for those who report to you. But, it is tough. It is hard for top leaders to know everything that is going on with their employees, and yet, someone has to assume responsibility.  Sometimes, we don’t even know all of the things that employees are doing and yet taking the job as a leader means that in your area, you accept the ultimate responsibility for yourself and for them. You can’t pass it on to anyone else since there isn’t anyone higher who can accept it, and you can’t pass the blame back on to those who report to you since it is commonly believed that you as the leader are responsible for the culture you have created.

So, what does all of this mean for those who want to be great leaders. History shows that:

·     Great leaders give others (their employees) the credit when things go well and they take the blame when things don’t go well.

·     Servant leadership means serving others, not ruling over others. It is a leader’s role to mentor and empower others to make decisions and grow.

·     It is a leader’s responsibility to provide the needed resources to employees if they make mistakes in order to help them improve or to use disciplinary actions as needed with employees. This is based on performance, not favoritism.

·     Leaders shouldn’t pass the buck. They have to take the blame for the mistakes of the firm and the employees who work for them. This shows that they are acknowledging and learning from mistakes and thereby leading by example.

·     By accepting responsibility for their own mistakes and those of others, leaders are helping everyone to know that as leaders they recognize that they are not perfect and are willing to grow and change.

·     Leaders take responsibility right away for a problem. There are great examples of leaders who immediately took responsibility for their decisions or their firm’s mistakes. For example, think about the many recent breaches of cybersecurity and the leaders who immediately took ownership for the errors and apologized for those mistakes to their consumers. Or leaders who had malfunctions of their products and took responsibility right away for the problem and for fixing it. We expect this of our leaders today. If they start blaming the technician or the manufacturing employee, it just doesn’t look leaderly and in fact looks petty. A quality of effective leadership is that the leader will assume and accept responsibility for the firm and all of the decisions taken within the organization.  

·     Leaders remember that their own personal goals must be subordinated to the group and organizational goals. They know that it is not about what they accomplish that matters, but rather it’s about what their team accomplishes that matters.

·     Leaders take a long view instead of a short-term perspective. They know that developing their talent is critical for the long-term success of the firm. They put time into developing others even if they don’t personally gain any reward from this. They know that developing others is critical for the success of the firm.

·     Leaders welcome and encourage diversity of thought among their team in order to fully flesh out ideas. This can help their firm to avoid mistakes. They don’t publicly humiliate team members for disagreeing with them or holding diverse views.

All around us it seems evident that some leaders have agreed to assume responsibility for the actions of their followers (the buck stops with them), while other leaders are passing the buck so fast on their responsibilities it’s as if they were holding hot potatoes.

Interestingly, President Truman also came up with another related expression that became popular which was “If you can’t stand the heat, you’d better get out of the kitchen” meaning that once you take the leadership job (or any job) you had better be prepared to deal with all of the issues, challenges and problems that arise and not just the easy ones. You should know this going into a position so that you shouldn’t complain when it gets too tough. Good advice for anyone in a leadership position today!

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