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The Buck Stops Where?

Great leaders may take the credit for triumphs, but do they also take the blame for missteps?

Great leaders may take the credit for triumphs, but do they also take the blame for missteps? As it happens, Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, reflecting on her unsuccessful presidential campaign was scheduled for release at the close of a run of setbacks her victorious rival Donald Trump suffered after assuming office. Both politicians blamed others for failures or “passed the buck,” directly contradicting the maxim Harry Truman famously posted in the Oval Office: “The Buck Stops Here.”

Clinton highlighted misogynistic bias against the first woman presidential nominee, Russian efforts to undermine the election and a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Others might point to her inadequate economic message, poor handling of official State Department emails and other scandals—as well as a celebrity-drenched campaign overlooking much of the nation’s heartland.

Meanwhile, Trump blamed the failure of key legislative efforts, poorly conceived executive orders, diplomatic disappointments, Republican senators, the “fake media,” disloyal staffers, military miscalculations and his long-gone predecessor for the dozen high-level firings that took place in his first six months.

Clinton and Trump are not unique in this tendency to blame setbacks on others. Psychologists refer to the phenomenon as “self-serving bias in attribution.” George W. Bush prematurely proclaimed “mission accomplished” after the fall of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—then years of bloodshed followed. Subsequent failures, such as the sluggish response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, were met with the dismissive disparaging of critics.

“Accountability is not vulnerability; rather, it fortifies strength.”

This same pathology haunts business leaders. Tony Hayward, BP CEO during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, was consumed with moving on with his own life and disdainful of questions over the repair of Gulf Coast and financial damages—busily blaming contractors for the incident. More recently, former Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf allowed the firing of whistleblowers while ignoring the creation of millions of fraudulent customer accounts.

Psychologists have studied such biases for over 60 years in a field labeled attribution theory. Summing up their findings, as actors, we are eager to attribute success to our actions but tend to blame failures on the situation. By contrast, as observers, we tend to blame mishaps on the actor—or the victim. Thus, someone who trips walking down the street blames the town for badly paving the sidewalk, whereas someone watching presumes that person is clumsy.

Many great corporate leaders have shown us how to beat this bias through confession, courage, contrition and correction. In 2012, Jamie Dimon acknowledged the risk management failures at JPMorgan Chase that caused its $23 billion London Whale trading losses.

Anne Mulcahy led Xerox’s recovery from near collapse, traveling 200,000 miles a year to apologize to rank-and-file workers and reassure them that management knew how bad things were then. Following a 2007 massive air travel backup caused by bad weather, Jet-Blue founder David Neeleman made a record 17 TV appearances in one day apologizing to travelers. All of these appeals were coupled with roadmaps showing how these mistakes will not happen again.

When Mary Barra took the wheel at GM in 2014, she inherited the worst public safety crisis in the car maker’s 106-year history as the firm waited 11 years to recall millions of cars with ignition-switch problems that led to preventable fatalities. She responded with candid congressional testimony, authentic apologies, top lieutenants dispatched to fix production failures and appropriate reparations to victims’ families, all of which led to a soaring restoration of trust.

The outcome was reminiscent of J&J ‘s ability to endure after its Tylenol-tampering crises. “We were cashing in on 100 years of trust that had been built up,” said CEO James E. Burke, who responded to the incident by apologizing and discontinuing Tylenol in capsule form—costing the company $150 million. “All the previous managements who built this corporation handed us, on a silver platter, the most powerful tool you could possibly have—institutional trust.”

Accountability is not vulnerability; rather, it fortifies strength.


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