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]

What Norm Taught us about Pursuing Perfection

Legendary comedian Norm MacDonald passed away at the age of 61-years-old this week. The former Saturday Night Live star was known for his deadpan delivery and fearless commitment to pushing the boundaries of humor.

Located among all the stories of Norm and his impact on comedy was an article that caught my attention. Norm and I had something in common.

I learned that he was searching for the Holy Grail.

I’m not talking about the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper.

Norm was a perpetual student of comedy. He was searching for what he called the “perfect joke.” One where “the punchline and the setup were almost identical.”

In his lifetime, he wrote only one joke that he felt even came close. Here it is:

“Julia Roberts told reporters this week that her marriage to Lyle Lovett has been over for some time. The key moment, she said, came when she realized that she was Julia Roberts and that she was married to Lyle Lovett.”

When asked if that joke was the Holy Grail, MacDonald said, “It was pretty close. I was happy with that one.”

Despite all his success and fame, Norm Macdonald was simply a humble man in search of the perfect joke. He spent a lifetime pursuing perfection.

Despite all his success and fame, Norm Macdonald was simply a humble man in search of the perfect joke. He spent a lifetime pursuing perfection. Click To Tweet

This story resonated so much with me because I’ve also been on a quest for my own Holy Grail.

As a business leader in the electrical industry, I spent 12 years working to develop a particular rating on a piece of electrical equipment. The vision was to create a product that would effectively eliminate the need for six other products.

I worked on it initially at a large company and continued to pursue it when I co-founded my own company in 2016.

Over the years, my engineering teams got close but we were never able to get all the features I wanted.

But last year they finally did it.

My company was able to launch a product that is changing the industry. It was so special, we called it the Holy Grail.

Even now when I present it to customers and trade groups, I refer to it as the Holy Grail.

We chased perfection for over a decade and, in the end, we were able to create a near-perfect product and the demand has been through the roof.

So how does all this relate to you and your leadership journey?

The story of Norm MacDonald chasing the perfect joke should be our story as well. As leaders, we need to be perpetual students of leadership. We should be endlessly curious and continually searching for ways to improve our leadership skills.

As leaders, we need to be perpetual students of leadership. Click To Tweet

We should be chasing the Holy Grail of becoming leaders worth following.

To do this, we must be dissatisfied with the status quo and, like Norm, be quietly and humbly pursuing perfection.

Resources like education, training, coaches, books, and podcasts should all be used to help us find better ways of inspiring people to do difficult things.

We will ever achieve perfection? Probably not.

But, like Norm, maybe one day we can get pretty close.

Can Leadership be Taught? What Most Companies Get Wrong

Have you ever considered the question of whether leadership can be taught?

There has always been a lot of debate about whether leaders are born or made.

I was thinking about this subject over the past week, and I remembered an interaction with a former employee. It was when I was a manufacturing plant manager at a large global company.

This employee was a manufacturing technician at the plant, and he stopped by my office one afternoon to talk to me.

I knew this employee very well. He was a hard worker who always went the extra mile. People looked up to him. He seemed to have a natural ability to lead others. He was someone I was considering for a supervisory role in the plant.

He asked me an interesting question, “I want to have your job. What do I need to do?”

The question took me by surprise. I had never had anyone ask me what it took to get to my position. I considered him as someone with leadership potential, so I was happy to share my story.

I proceeded to describe exactly what I had done to get into this role. I told him about four years of engineering school, a year of nuclear power training, five years of leading on a nuclear submarine, two years of MBA school, and eight years of corporate leadership experience. I explained how I had a mentor and started small and gained more responsibility over nearly two decades of leading people.

I told him he could do the same.

He shocked me with his response when he said, “You don’t understand. I don’t want to do all that. I just want to have your job.”

This employee failed to understand that there are no shortcuts when it comes to learning how to be an effective leader. Many companies make this mistake as well.

Even if you are born with the natural skills to be a great leader, you need practice. All the ability and training in the world won’t help.

To learn leadership, you need to be a leader.

To learn leadership, you need to be a leader. Click To Tweet

You’ve likely heard of the 10,000-hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Outliers. Gladwell states that it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills, like playing the violin.

Sure, there are people born with the natural ability to play an instrument, but it takes years of practice and a great mentor to become a master of the craft.

Leadership is the same.

Even if someone is gifted with natural leadership ability, they need practice.

You can’t just send someone to leadership training and expect them to become a great leader. They can certainly learn the basics, but they need the opportunity to lead to develop leadership skills.

You can’t just send someone to leadership training and expect them to become a great leader. Click To Tweet

Like the violinist, they need to start small and practice leadership under an experienced mentor to gain experience.

The problem with most companies is that they promote people into management with no plan to develop their necessary skills to be a leader. At best, these employees might get some rudimentary leadership training, but most new managers are left alone to figure it out.

Often they are promoted, not because of their leadership potential, but because they were a solid individual contributor. Many of these managers slip back into what they are comfortable with, being a doer and not a leader.

Instead of practicing leadership, they spend their days in meetings, working on emails, and doing spreadsheets. They never learn how to become an effective leader. They fail to build a relationship with their teams, establish clear goals, and motivate employees.

And the failure of the leader eventually results in poor performance, disengaged employees, and high turnover.

So, can leadership be taught?

The answer is yes. But not in the way of traditional training programs.

The best way to learn to become an effective leader is to practice leadership. Aspiring leaders need to be given opportunities to lead small teams under the careful observation of an experienced leader.

Like a master-apprentice relationship, the young leader will gain mastery through continued practice and guidance.

When it comes to learning how to lead, there are no shortcuts.

If you are interested in how I learned to lead as a young submarine officer, look at my new book, All in the Same Boat. I share my transition from a rookie leader to a qualified, experienced division officer.

[Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash]