The Nature of Responsibility

The Nature of Responsibility

There are many examples of people rightly taking responsibility in the Bible—and many examples of people trying to avoid it.  The latter was a major component of the Fall.  Adam and Eve both tried to avoid their responsibility by blaming others, but God still held them—and Satan—accountable for their own sins.  A great example of the former is David, who he became a leader by taking on the responsibility for the entire nation by volunteering to fight Goliath (1 Samuel 17).  More importantly, while he sinned in some egregious ways, he was quick to repent when confronted.

And David said to God, “Was it not I who gave command to number the people? It is I who have sinned and done great evil. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand, O LORD my God, be against me and against my father’s house. But do not let the plague be on your people.”

-1 Chronicles 21:17, ESV

In October 2008, two senior leaders were fired for something that happened on the other side of the world.  Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired both the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force when it was discovered that four nuclear missile fuses had been mistakenly shipped to Taiwan from Hill AFB, Utah in 2006.  To make matters worse, the Air Force was still reeling from a 2007 incident in which six nuclear warheads were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 bomber and flown from Minot AFB, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.  Even though the official report from that incident placed the blame on base-level leadership and below, the two incidents taken together proved that the issues were much more systemic.  This highlights important truths about the nature of responsibility, which is a crucial but often overlooked component of leadership.

Leadership Require Responsibility

Responsibility is integral to leadership first because it is integral to any job.  To have any duty is to have responsibility, which means that in formal leadership, to assume a position of leadership is to take on the responsibility of performing all of the required duties of leadership.  In an informal sense, leadership can be defined as taking responsibility for those around you. Therefore, as Simon Sinek pointed out, leadership in a very real sense is responsibility.  In my leadership paper I showed that good leaders care for those they lead in addition to coordinating their efforts for the good of the organization, so a leader is responsible for the people and for the job.  In other words, leadership is taking responsibility, so without taking responsibility for others you cannot be a leader.  Authority therefore exists to enabling leaders to fulfill their responsibilities to their people and the organization, so legitimate authority cannot exist without responsibility. 

Since responsibility can be described as duty, everyone at every level has some measure of responsibility.  And just like in leadership, every duty requires a certain amount of authority.  This means that to delegate a task is to delegate both the responsibility for the task and the authority required to complete the task.  To give people responsibility without authority is a recipe for failure and discouragement.  Unless people the authority required to do the job, can we really claim they have the responsibility to do the job?  The responsibility rests with the one who has the authority, so a leader who fails to delegate authority is responsible for the team’s failures.  It is therefore unjust for leaders to hold subordinates responsible for tasks they did not have the authority to properly complete.  But by the same logic authority is inherent with delegated responsibility, so as a former boss of mine once said, “always assume the authority to do your job”. 

Individual and Shared Responsibility

This brings up an interesting question about responsibility: when you delegate it do you relinquish it?  To answer this, we must look at the concept of shared responsibility.  In our individualistic culture, it is easy to focus on individual responsibility.  In this view, an individual who gives responsibility does not retain it.  But responsibility is not a zero-sum game, so when it is given it is still retained.  The subordinate has responsibility to do the job, but the leader still has the responsibility to ensure the job gets done.  Furthermore, the leader is responsible for the subordinate.  Therefore, they both share responsibility.  So when things go wrong it is proper to hold both individuals and leaders accountable for the particular ways in which they all failed to fulfill their responsibilities.  We are all responsible for our individual actions, words, responses, and negligence.  We are all responsible for the decisions we make and must therefore own the consequences of those decisions.  In essence, we are responsible for ourselves as well as anything and anyone we have authority over.  Both W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran famously place responsibility of “the system”—and therefore the vast majority of issues—on leaders.  This means that while all workers are responsible for the work they do, the leaders are responsible for the tools, training, processes, policies, facilities, environment, organizational culture, and everything else they need to do the job.  When something goes wrong it is often appropriate to point to both workers and leaders, sometimes appropriate to point only to leaders, and almost never appropriate to point only to workers. 

With this in mind, let’s look again at our nuclear incidents.  In the Taiwan incident, various workers were responsible for mistakes in identifying, pulling, and shipping the fuses, so they were justly held accountable for their negligence.  At the same time, the incident was in large part caused by various factors that were outside of the control of those workers and therefore the responsibility of leaders at various levels, so they were also justly held accountable.  Similarly, the Minot incident involved many personnel failing to properly prepare, load, and inspect the warheads, leading to rightly-deserved adverse actions.  But the organizational culture that allowed this perfect storm to happen was the responsibility of leaders at various levels who were also rightly held accountable.  Both incidents together pointed to enterprise-wide issues, which were the responsibility of the Secretary and Chief of Staff, meaning that they were rightly held accountable as well.  To borrow the analogy we discussed here, there were bad apples (individuals), bad barrels (units), and a bad barrel maker (the Air Force as a whole).  Properly solving the problem therefore required people at all levels to be held accountable for what they were responsible for. 

Properly solving the problem also required an immense amount of pain and effort for everyone in those units and across the Air Force for years.  Many people who were completely uninvolved suffered the consequences of these incidents and therefore bore responsibility as well.  This may seem unfair to our individualistic culture, but this is the reality of shared responsibility. 

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