President Harry S. Truman famously stated, “The buck stops here!” By so doing, he acknowledged that the role of U.S. President is inevitably wrapped up in owning and solving problems.
Truman’s insight also applies to each of us in our role as leaders. Indeed, problem owning and solving, more than virtually anything else, are the leader’s stock-in-trade. Regardless of the prestige or power associated with leadership, the common bond across all fields of endeavor is that leaders face problems. These may be couched as challenges, possibilities, or opportunities, but the bottom line is the same: “you gotta own ‘em—and solve ’em.”
Let’s clarify each part of this leadership responsibility. It’s critical that as leaders we recognize the importance of owning the problems of the organizations and/or endeavors we lead. Owning them must precede solving them. Why? Because human nature tends to lead us toward looking for who is to blame for our problems—and that generally takes us away from solving them.
A personal experience helps illustrate this. Some years ago, I found myself gazing at the whiteboard on the wall of one of my CEO clients. In directing my attention there, he informed me that the list of about 50 names on the board were all the people who had let him down. He blamed them for the fact that his company wasn’t making money and that business “just wasn’t fun anymore.” I noted that the last name on the board was my own.
I pondered the list for a few long moments, and then asked the CEO to accompany me on a walk. He looked at me with surprise, but agreed. Out his door we went, straight to the Men’s Room. As I entered, he exclaimed, “Hey, you can do this without me!”
“Actually, I can’t,” I responded. Perplexed, he followed me. I walked him to the lavatory area over which hung a large mirror. As we looked at ourselves, I declared, “You left the most important person off the list of those who have let you down—and he is looking at you.”
After an uncomfortable pause, my client turned and said, “You know, I could fire you for that.” I replied, “Oh, I thought I was fired. Seems like you really want to transfer blame for your problems rather than solve them.”
This CEO (who is a close friend to this day) then wisely responded, “You’re right; at the end of the day, I am responsible. So…where do we go from here?”
At this point, I suggested that we return to his office and see if we couldn’t make better use of his list of blamees than where we had started. While we couldn’t get 50 of them in a room, we could engage his direct reports (about eight people) in a facilitated discussion of the issues facing the company.
The CEO and I carefully developed an agenda for this meeting, with the first item of business being the CEO’s pronouncement that the company was failing and that he was responsible. He would not, in any way, divert blame for the problem. In fact, he agreed to not tolerate any blaming from anyone, other than the blame he would direct to himself.
Having taken full ownership of the problem, he then would take on leadership for solving it. At this point, he would invite the input of his people regarding what they saw as the contributing factors that had led to their situation, and how these could be overcome.
This basic agenda drove the interchange between the CEO and his key managers for two full days, after which they had developed a turn-around strategy, which was communicated and implemented with the rest of the company.
Over the next eight months, the business became profitable. More importantly, the CEO learned a crucially important lesson: Leaders must own their problems and they, with their teams, must solve them. No dodging, no blaming allowed!
As leaders, we must recognize that problems come with our office. Indeed, without problems to be solved, leaders would be unnecessary. Unreserved, non-blaming ownership is always a trait of successful leaders.
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.