Accept Responsibility (2 of 5)

by Stephen T. Messenger

February 16, 2021

All new Army officers take the oath of enlistment to begin their career.  In this oath, they raise their right hand and swear to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which [they are] about to enter.”  In effect, they are taking accountability for their future actions.  This verbal acknowledgement to accept responsibility represents the second of the five attributes in the RALE+1 Leadership Philosophy

Unfortunately, accepting responsibility has become a dirty term in today’s language.  We misinterpret it to where someone has done something wrong, but they are willing, or usually pressured, to own up to their actions and publicly admit their shortfalls.  While this is one aspect of a leader taking responsibility for their team, make no mistake, this is NOT what accepting responsibility means. 

Steve Smith is an internationally renowned Australian cricket player holding numerous awards, to include at one point the second highest all time batting rating.  In 2018, Smith was captain of the Australian Test Team and was aware of his team’s plot to illegally tamper with the ball during a match against South Africa. 

The day of the match, he knew his teammates were bringing sandpaper on the playing field, and he purposefully turned a blind eye.  After the umpires caught them, Smith was charged with premeditated cheating, suspended for one year, and restricted from leadership positions for an additional 12 months, along with losing his sponsorships.  In a statement, he said, “I take full responsibility.  I made a serious error of judgment and I understand the consequences.” 

Smith is only holding himself accountable because others found him guilty; by true standards, he never assumed accountability of his team in the first place.  A true leader would take proactive measures to uphold the sanctity and enable success of their team.  He had a chance to enforce standards and lead, but he chose another path.  Accepting responsibility is less about admitting failure and more about preventing failure.

The best leaders own all aspects of their team: the good, the bad, and the ugly. They are relentless in driving the group towards mission and ethical success.  The Army has a tradition at changes of command where the unit’s colors (each unit has a symbolic flag that represents the organization) are passed from the outgoing commander to the incoming commander.  The colors are the commander’s symbolic authority representing his or her responsibilities to the organization. 

In my change of command ceremony, I clearly remember the quiet pause as I held the colors.  Time stood still for a moment.  The narrator stated in a clear and resonating voice that the undersigned, me, now assumed command of the unit, effective immediately, according to Army Command Policy.  The regulation states that “commanders are responsible for everything their command does or fails to do.”  I could tangibly feel the burden of command now resting in my hands.  Military commanders never have to state they accept responsibility for a success or a failure; they legally own everything.  

While there may not be an official ceremony for most leadership positions, the concept remains the same.  This responsibility is not retroactive, but forward-looking.  Leaders accept responsibility for their teams and organizations at the beginning.  This responsibility drives the group in the right direction on day one, not after an indiscretion.  Leadership responsibility is centered on this phrase: “I am the one who must make this happen.”  Leaders do this by:

Placing People First.  Followers are the heartbeat of any organization.  You must have their best interests in mind at all times, or you will not have followers for long.

Knowing Winning Matters.  You were put in charge to make things happen.  Leaders have goals and missions.  Accomplish them with fervor and gusto while bringing the team along with you. 

Understanding the Organization.  Military leaders use battlefield circulation, also called management by walking around.  When you get out and see something broken or wrong, fix it.  While Steve Smith didn’t cheat, he allowed cheating to happen.

Delegating and Holding Others Accountable.  You can’t do everything.  Leaders delegate with clear standards and goals, then follow up.  If it’s not happening, leaders must get involved before it’s too late.

Passing Praise and Absorbing Blame.  If something good happens in an organization, the praise filters down to those who were successful.  If something bad happens, the external pressure stops at the top.  Leaders then fix the problem themselves.

Applying It Across Their Own Lives: Ownership translates across businesses, families, volunteer organizations, civic institutions, finances, health, education, and hundreds of public and personal areas.  Take responsibility of your life in every area. 

Accepting responsibility is an honor and a privilege, not a dirty phrase.  Steve Smith did not take full responsibility when he admitted his failure.  He proved he never accepted it in the first place.  True leaders stand up on the first day in charge and take a mental oath to well and faithfully discharge their duties in whatever role they assume.  They hold the symbolic colors in their hands and feel the burden of owning all aspects of the organization.  Moreover, they take proactive and deliberate action to lead their teams to success in an ethical and moral fashion. 

When you find yourself in charge of a business, team, family, individual, or personal project, the first step is accepting responsibility.  You are responsible for everything that team does or fails to do.  Lead with this in mind.

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