Leaders accept the blame, but losers pass the buck.

Rick Warren
Saddleback Community Church

The life of a leader is never easy. All sorts of things tend to happen that are unexpected, and many of those things have the capacity to upset the apple cart in more ways than one. Plans that have been carefully formulated and well thought through can be undone by carelessness, the thoughtlessness of one player in the team or some unforeseen event, and all that hard work has gone to waste.

What happens at a time like that? How important is it to identify the problem, find the culprit, exact restitution and achieve resolution?

One of the greatest attributes of leadership is the ability to take responsibility for what has happened to overturn the project, regardless of whether you as the leader actually did or did not have a ‘hands on’ awareness of the situation. All sorts of things can go wrong in the course of our roles as overseers; jobs can be mucked up, work can be badly or inexpertly done, problems that were unexpected can and do arise. You can tell whether you’re just the person ‘in charge’ or if you are a real leader by the way that you deal with the crisis.

Someone who just wants to be the boss will always look for someone else to fix the blame on, whereas someone who takes responsibility as the leader of the situation will look for a way to fix the problem, using all their own skills and experience to do that. In the process they will go out of their way to help the person at fault to work through how the situation happened, and how it can be resolved, while at the same time allowing them to keep their dignity. Humiliation of the person in question will never help anything; it merely breeds fear and shame into situation and undermines the solution finding process.

Joe Batten says ‘the first task of a leader is to keep hope alive’. When problems arise and the leader responds by blaming others and doing all that they can to avoid being seen to be wrong or having to take responsibility for what has happened, they weaken the team, they weaken the project and ultimately, (although possibly not at the time), they weaken their own reputation as a leader.

If co-labourers feel that they can be blamed rightly or wrongly at any time, the atmosphere becomes clouded with a fog of fault finding, blame shifting and ultimately an increased lack of clarity and progress on the project.

How then should we deal with problems and mistakes?

Well, the first thing is to find out what happened. Do this in a way that exhibits genuine concern and care for the person the problem originated with. Get as many of the facts as you can before you do anything else. Don’t blame, don’t accuse and don’t lose your cool! Do speak peace and optimism, even though the situation may look really difficult. You will set the mood for the morale of the whole team; they will follow your lead. If you maintain peace, the team will be able to think clearly and get to work fixing the problem without having to cover their own backs or be afraid of the consequences of making a mistake.

There is an old proverb – the person that doesn’t make a mistake doesn’t make anything – and to a great degree that is true. Don’t be intolerant of the mistakes of others… treat them the way you would like to be treated. If you as the leader can openly acknowledge when you’ve been wrong or have made an error it will diffuse the natural fear that those on your team have of doing the same. None of us can be right all the time, and the most mature and effective way to build the team is to admit when we’ve been wrong and set to work rectifying the problem. It’s only pride and fear that stop us from doing this.

Share the credit when the team has done a great job, take the responsibility when things haven’t gone well and work with them to improve. These are some of the attributes of a great leader. Without this, you will find your team escaping to greener fields whenever they get a better offer. If you are loyal to them, they will often stay with you regardless of what may appear to be a better offer.