Leadership is about responsibility

The culture of protecting our subordinates is a good one. However, it can easily be overdone.

This point is very effectively made in the movie ‘12 O clock High’ starring Gregory Peck. In that, the de-briefing of an Air Force bombing mission reveals that the Bomber Group had suffered heavy casualties due to technical error made by a navigator. In fact, the young navigator himself owns up. The Overall Commander promptly orders removal of the navigator from the squadron. The CO of the squadron jumps to his rescue saying that he, the CO, alone is responsible for what went wrong and would not allow his subordinate to be penalized. What does the Overall Commander do here? Does he pat the CO on his back for taking the blame and protecting his subordinate? No such thing. On the contrary, he orders removal of the CO too! He clarifies that that removal of the navigator was necessary in interest of the lives of others, while the removal of the CO had become necessary since he was identifying himself too closely with the troops, to the detriment of the mission!

But isn’t the leader expected to protect his subordinates?

Indeed, but protect against what and whom? If protection is sought against unfair demands of others, the commander must do that. That is his job. However, in the Air Force case study above, the Overall Commander was removing the navigator not to punish him but to protect the lives of others in the squadron. Similarly, he was ordering removal of the CO himself not to punish him but to remove any inhibiting influence on the men from going all out to achieve the organizational goals.

If there is one management insight I have learnt in my long career of 35 years, it is this – Most managers shy away from hard decisions regarding the weak links in the organisation.

In this regard, I directly reproduce Colin Powell’s words – ‘Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions.  Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: you’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset.  Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.

In his typical American way, he summed it up by saying. ‘ Being responsible must mean pissing some people off’.

Most managers don’t do that. Do you?

The above is mostly from chapter 21 – Don’t protect the Unworthy – of my book – Leadership for Colonels and Business Managers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *