One of the most striking metaphors of the Trump presidency came early in the Covid-19 pandemic. As the coronavirus began to spread across the U.S. and the world, the sluggish start here to roll out testing was met with these words when the president was asked at a press conference if he felt responsible:
I take no responsibility at all.
Then on Tuesday, while taking questions from reporters before boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, the president again deflected blame, this time related to the violent insurrection that took place last week at the U.S. Capitol while Congress was counting the votes of the Electoral College.
That riot was preceded by a speech from the president at a rally of his supporters. Asked by a reporter yesterday if he felt he had any "personal responsibility" for what happened, the president's response was consistent, and not at all surprising, even if terribly disappointing.
So, if you read my speech and many people have done it ... it's been analyzed and people thought that what I said was totally appropriate.
Which, really, if you think about it, sounds a lot like "I take no responsibility at all." In fact, he didn't even say that he was proud of what he'd said--he said only that other people thought it was "totally appropriate."
I wrote earlier this week about how Trump's most fatal flaw is his unwillingness to admit when he's wrong. The inability to accept responsibility might be even worse. Unfortunately, it's a problem that isn't uncommon with leaders, though in most cases not to the extent we've seen broadcast on national television on a fairly regular basis.
The thing is, whether you take responsibility or not, you are responsible. If that's not something you're up for, OK, but maybe step aside for someone else who is. Otherwise, what you are saying is, "That's not my fault--don't hold me accountable for it."
But you are accountable for how you lead. Instead, what you should be saying is, "My team is working really hard on this, but we didn't get it right. I take responsibility as the leader. Here's how we're going to fix it."
Obviously, if you're a leader, you're not personally responsible for every action by every individual on your team. No leader can possibly be responsible for everything--that's why you have a team.
What you are responsible for is providing your team with direction, resources, and accountability. That last one is important because even if you aren't directly responsible, you are accountable.
That's why we talk about taking responsibility. Even if you weren't directly responsible for whatever went wrong, when you're called to give account, you take the responsibility. You own it. Doing so communicates that you understand it was your job to make sure that everyone had what they needed to succeed.
Ultimately, it's about having a mindset that it's up to you to make sure your team performs. If it doesn't, you don't throw your team under the bus. You literally remove the responsibility from whoever wasn't able to perform and take it on yourself. That might mean giving them more resources. It might mean more training or even discipline.
When it comes to answering for the failure, however, that's on the leader. The reason is simple--because the leader is the one with influence. Your sphere of influence determines your sphere of accountability. Your team is accountable to you. You are accountable to all of the other stakeholders.
Also, a good leader usually has enough credibility to absorb responsibility when something goes wrong. To that end, they don't see it as a personal attack when it comes to taking responsibility. In fact, taking responsibility doesn't even mean admitting you were personally wrong. It means that whatever team you were responsible for didn't get it done, and you're owning that failure.
By the way, something remarkable happens when you get up in front of a room of people who are criticizing your team for failure and tell them: "This isn't on my team. I'm responsible. I'm the one who should be held accountable. This is what we're going to do to get it right." You don't look weak. You don't look like a failure. You look like a leader--the kind people will want to follow.