Leadership and Responsibility

January 4th, 2010

By Tom Carter

The first refuge of weak leaders is blaming mistakes on subordinates.  It’s unacceptable in the military, in corporate hierarchies, and in other settings where the responsibilities and authorities of leadership are understood and practiced.  Harry Truman enshrined the concept with the famous maxim, “The buck stops here.”  The principle is that a leader is responsible for everything his or her organization does or fails to do.  When a U.S. Navy ship runs aground, the captain of the ship isn’t going to point to a junior officer who was serving as OOD (officer of the deck) and say, “It’s not my fault; it’s his fault!”

President Obama obviously doesn’t understand this basic concept of leadership.  When he finally got around to responding publicly to the incident of the Christmas underwear bomber, he tried to lay blame on the intelligence community.  Not my fault, he was saying — they screwed up.  What he doesn’t understand is that they work for him, and he’s responsible for what they do. 

The President also doesn’t understand another important principle of leadership.  Good leaders give credit for success to their subordinates and take the blame for failures.  Does anyone doubt that he would have made liberal use of the vertical pronoun in taking credit for a first year in office with no serious terrorism attempts?

It’s also evident that Obama doesn’t know much about intelligence.  In that sense, he’s no different from most politicians.  They seem to think that providing enough dollars to the various intelligence agencies of the U.S. government will ensure that surprises never happen and threats never go undetected.  The truth is that intelligence will always be imperfect because it deals with one huge uncertainty — what our enemies intend to do.  In the wake of 9/11 the politicians decided to reorganize because they didn’t understand why the attacks weren’t anticipated and prevented.  They added new layers of bureaucracy and management, but in the end, predictably, the system still misses small indicators out of the millions they have to deal with all the time.

If the President were a good leader, he would have taken responsibility for the failure of his government to identify and act on this threat.  Then he would have worked internally to fix any weaknesses in the intelligence system and possibly fire anyone who was clearly responsible for failure at critical points.  He may still do some of this, but we’ll be able to judge how serious (and competent) he is by whether he forms a committee or commission to publicly find fault and recommend solutions.  That’s the politician’s way, and it’s intended primarily to deflect responsibility and present the image of action.

Meanwhile, the Christmas underwear bomber may have done us a favor.  The Obama Administration, with strong support from the media, has attempted to de-emphasize the fact that we are at war.  Whether it’s called “the war on terror” or “the war against Islamist extremism” or something else, the key word is “war.”  If we understand the reality of what’s happening to us and the nature of the unrelenting foe we face, then we’ll no longer be able to justify this as little more than a criminal justice problem.  The underwear bomber is a foreign national who attempted to carry out a deadly attack on our homeland.  But instead of treating him like the enemy combatant he is, he was arrested, given all the rights of a U.S. citizen, and promptly “lawyered-up.”  Instead of interrogating him like a prisoner of war, all we can hope to do is make a deal with him for a lighter sentence if he’ll give us information that might help prevent a future attack.  That’s an absurd reaction to the threat we face, and this case may generate needed changes — if not from the government, then from an alarmed public. 

President Obama needs to adjust his attitude and begin behaving like a wartime leader.  He’s responsible for the security of the United States, and everything else must come second.          

For additional information:

Intelligence Is a Terrible Thing to Waste, Gordon Crovitz, The Wall Street Journal
U.S. Intensifies Screening for Travelers From 14 Nations, The New York Times
Obama aide defends trial for suspect in Christmas Day attempt to bomb plane, The Washington Post

(This article was also published at Blogcritics.)

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7 Responses to “Leadership and Responsibility”

  1. d |

    Kind of like Bush taking no responsibility for the lack of w.m.d.s,and Clinton took no responsibility for his Tiger Woodsish actions? Seems to me,all the past presidents except Truman, are just men,and as you know few men will admit when they screwed up. Most blame others and apparently Obama is no better. It’s a rare man who admits fault, and a rarer woman,me included.

  2. Brian Bagent |

    I know for certain that Reagan took responsibility for the actions of his subordinates. Colin Powell has talked about this and has basically said that he would have eaten glass for Reagan because of the way Reagan shouldered the blame for things that went wrong under him.

    I don’t recall the specifics, but Powell was really hot to trot for some idea or other and finally convinced Reagan to take action. It failed. Rather than pointing the finger at Powell, Reagan ate the vaseline sandwich over it.

  3. Lisa |

    Tom, Obama has blamed the intelligence community. Gosh, I am so glad we were never in charge of tracking who paid cash ($3K)for airline tickets and who traveled without luggage. Those are important dots to connect but the embassy notification baffles me. That is the kind of information you send forward through the chain of command and to other agencies regardless of the reliability of the source. I haven’t heard Hillary take responsibility for that info falling through the cracks. I would love to know what happened.

  4. Tom |

    Lisa, I agree. As you well know, the biggest problem is that it’s so hard to pick a couple of needles out of the huge haystacks of information that the system deals with every day. Politicians and other non-professionals don’t understand. A prime example of that is the silly reorganizing and serial finger-pointing that took place after 9/11. It’s going to be interesting to see how Obama deals with this, but I’m not optimistic that he’ll improve anything, any more than Bush & Co did. Some things are just so hard that they’ll never be perfect.

  5. Lisa |

    I look back nostalgically when counting Soviet tanks was a big deal.

  6. Brianna |

    Actually, we’ve historically been terrible at counting Soviet tanks, and evaluating Soviet capabilities in general. One of the things Kennedy campaigned on was a supposed “missile gap” between the US and the USSR; Ike couldn’t tell him that there was no such gap because our capabilities were supposed to be a secret. Then Kennedy got into office, found out that we actually had many more missiles than the Soviets, and started campaigning about social issues instead 🙂


  7. Lisa |

    Thanks, Brianna however I was attempting to be a little simplistic and hopefully humorous. A current day analogy to the “missile gap” would be the use of spy satellites to track global warming, another interesting news tidbit for this week.

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