What Happens When Leaders throw People Under the Bus?

The American public witnessed two colossal leadership failures in the past month – a botched withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan and an uncontrolled migration of more than 12,000 immigrants into Del Rio, Texas.

Regardless of your political beliefs, these events were a failure of the government to provide the essential function of protecting its citizens.

In both situations, however, the senior leaders who failed to do their jobs were not punished. The only people who faced any consequences were low-level people.

In the case of Afghanistan, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller was relieved of command shortly after he posted a video criticizing senior U.S. officials for the failures in Afghanistan. He was punished because he asked for accountability of senior leaders due to the “clear, obvious mistakes that were made.”

For the crime of asking for accountability, he lost his job

The senior military leaders who botched the withdrawal, which led to the deaths of 13 service members and the stranding of hundreds of Americans, have not faced any punishment.

In Del Rio, Texas, several Border Patrol agents were placed on administrative duties after videos emerged showing them “aggressively” trying to stop illegal immigrants while on horseback.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, the man responsible for securing the border, said the images of the agents “horrified” him. He is pushing for “swift and strong” punishment for the agents. Even President Biden said, “I promise you those people will pay. There will be consequences.”

For the crime of trying to do their job to enforce the law, these agents will likely be fired, publicly shamed, and even prosecuted.

The senior leaders whose decisions caused this wave of migrants to come and cross our border have not faced any punishment.

In both cases, senior leaders sidestepped accountability while their junior people were thrown under the bus.

Sadly, this practice is far too common in business leadership today. When problems occur, corporate bosses almost always look for the closest scapegoat to blame.

The bosses remain unharmed while the junior employees suffer the wrath.

What’s often missed, however, is the overall effect on the organization. When people know they can’t trust their bosses, they begin to operate differently. Employees don’t want to be the next victim, so they change their actions to protect their careers.

When people know they can’t trust their bosses, they begin to operate differently. Click To Tweet

Military officers stop questioning the poor planning of superior officers.

Border agents stop enforcing the law.

When employees are controlled by fear, the entire organization becomes less effective in carrying out its mission.

When employees are controlled by fear, the entire organization becomes less effective in carrying out its mission. Click To Tweet

Leaders who throw people under the bus to duck their responsibility ultimately destroy the overall culture of an organization and replace it with fear.

Contrast this with President Harry S. Truman, who famously kept a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that said, “the buck stops here.” Truman understood that senior leaders are ultimately responsible for the decisions they make. He knew that he could never delegate responsibility.

So, how do these stories relate to your leadership journey?

It’s simple. It’s important to remember the difference between authority and responsibility.

Authority can and should be delegated. We need to push decision-making down to the lowest levels of our organizations and empowered our teams to be decisive.

But, we also need to embrace the fact that the leader is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the business – good or bad.

Leaders can never delegate responsibility – They must always own it.

Leaders can never delegate responsibility – They must always own it. Click To Tweet

Delegating authority but never responsibility is the cornerstone of creating and maintaining a high-performing organization.

In my first book, I talk about a boss who had my back when I made a major mistake as a young design engineer. Instead of throwing me under the bus, he stood up for me and coached me through a difficult time in my career. My trust and loyalty to him grew because I knew I had a great boss.

This is what leadership looks like.

 

[Photo Daily Press/James Quigg]

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