“A gentleman accepts the responsibility of his actions and bears the burden of their consequences, even when he did not himself instigate them but only acquiesced to them, didn't say No even though he knew he should.” — William Faulkner, 1962
Let’s be real for a minute.
When something goes wrong, it feels good to hold someone accountable, doesn’t it?
To look at a problem, find a scapegoat, and fully lay the blame on them. There’s a certain amount of schadenfreude or moral superiority in that scenario.
It’s one of the reasons superheroes are perpetually popular: they are the ultimate arbiters of justice because they have powers we don’t: they can discern truth and they can track down the criminals who rain chaos down on the city. Through transference, we can imagine ourselves in their capes.
It’s justice personified.
Or, as Edgar W. Smith wrote of Sherlock Holmes, that original caped crusader:
“We see him as the fine expression of our urge to trample evil and to set aright the wrongs with which the world is plagued. He is Galahad and Socrates, bringing high adventure to our dull existences and calm, judicial logic to our biased minds. He is the success of all our failures; the bold escape from our imprisonment.”
It’s tempting to find a target to blame. To shift responsibility from ourselves. It’s human nature.
Consider the first book of the Bible, in which Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden. Eve eats the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge — the one tree God forbid humans to eat from — then convinces Adam to join her. Once caught, the blame game begins.
Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. It was a circular firing squad, and they were all cast out of the garden.
So yes, when we’re accused of wrongdoing, our minds instinctively move to avoid the shame of wrong and the pain of punishment, and instead attempt to put a target on someone else’s back.
Only here’s the thing: that target could just as easily be you at any point. You have likely come across this poem, or at least fragments of it:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
— Martin Niemöller
Niemöller’s work reminds us that there’s culpability in silence, just as there is in blame. If we don’t speak up and others suffer the consequences because of our silence, it’s the equivalent of actively throwing them under the bus.
Incidentally, for a real philosophical connection to the phrase “throw them under the bus,” be sure to check the video in the Timeless section below.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rev. King’s quote above is not some abstraction; it was a specific reference to John F. Kennedy’s position on civil rights: he was supportive of the concept privately, but unwilling to take a public stand.
Perhaps you’ll recall this vignette in another president’s tenure from the previous newsletter “Leaders Need to Be Accountable”:
In 1948, Harry Truman made an executive order at the risk of losing popularity: he determined that segregation within the U.S. military was illegal. It was an election year, and this decision could have cost him the presidency.
But he made the decision anyway—because it was the right thing to do. And he was prepared to accept the consequences of his behavior.
We all make mistakes from time to time; the true measure of a leader is how they rise up to greet that mistake.
Do they welcome it at the door, before it even knocks, and announce to everyone inside what they’ve done? Or do they refuse to answer and send it next door?
Leaders at all levels, from a first-time manager to a long-time CEO, are watched and scrutinized by their teams. Their actions and reactions will tell a story more clearly and effectively than any narrative they put in place.
Maybe we’ve made a bad hire. Or flubbed a marketing campaign. Perhaps we’ve been in a leadership position when a crisis occurred. Our words and actions have consequences, particularly in response to slip-ups.
Our behavior will not only be watched closely, but it will be mimicked by the people whom we lead. Attitudes aren’t taught; they’re caught.
For a story of the power of accountability, I’m reminded of a scene toward the end of William Faulkner’s final novel, The Reivers. The book is a retrospective, told by Lucius when he was an old man. He recalled some events of his childhood in Mississippi in 1905.
He was convinced by his friend Boon Hogganbeck to “borrow” the automobile of Lucius’s grandfather, “Boss.” They added coachman Ned McCaslin to the group and headed for Memphis. Along the way, they ran into challenges and exciting new things for an 11 year-old like Lucius, from getting stuck in a bog to visiting a brothel. And Ned traded Boss’s car for a horse to pay off a friend’s debt. If it won the race it was scheduled to run in, would mean the debt would be clear and the car would return to Ned’s possession.
The action culminated the only way it could: with Lightning, the horse, winning the race, but with Boss showing up unexpectedly.
When it came time to punish Lucius, Grandfather told Father to spare the shaving strop he was going to use on the boy. Lucius admitted his guilt and expected punishment, imploring his grandfather to get it out of the way:
“How can I forget it? Tell me how to.”
“You can’t,” he said. “Nothing is ever forgotten. Nothing is ever lost. It’s too valuable.”
“Then what can I do?”
“Live with it,” Grandfather said.
“Live with it? You mean, forever? For the rest of my life? Not ever to get rid of it? Never? I can’t.”
“Yes you can,” he said. “You will. A gentleman always does. A gentleman can live through anything. He faces anything. A gentleman accepts the responsibility of his actions and bears the burden of their consequences, even when he did not himself instigate them but only acquiesced to them, didn't say No even though he knew he should.”
Given the extraordinary events on Capitol Hill this week, and the equally extraordinary silence, acquiescence, or gaslighting, there are a few leaders at the national level who could do with a word at the knee of Grandfather.
Real leaders shoulder the blame and give credit to others.
It’s only when we accept the responsibility of our actions and bear the burden of our consequences that we can call ourselves true leaders.
“My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time—
To let the punishment fit the crime.” — Gilbert & Sullivan, 1885
President Trump was deplatfomed first by Twitter (for 12 hours), then Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitch. Now he can’t even sell merchandise as Shopify has banned him. (AdWeek)
A look at the digital archives preserving the posts rioters made of themselves at the US Capitol; the valuable crowdsourced evidence otherwise faces removal. Thanks for the Evidence, You Seditious Dweebs. (Gizmodo)
Platforms played a role in the insurrection—in its planning, documentation, and the spreading of disinformation that led up to it. Ought they be held accountable for it? (Wired)
“History teaches that character counts. Character above all.” — David McCullough, 1998
Take Michael Sandel’s Justice, one of the most famous courses taught at Harvard College. It is an introduction to moral and political philosophy, offering an opportunity to discuss contemporary dilemmas and controversies. (Harvard University)
To get a flavor for it, here’s the first class in the series. (YouTube)
“What kind and degree of insanity should excuse its victim from punishment for an act that, if done by a sane person, would bring upon him the sanction of the law?” An Assumption of Guilt: A brief history of pleading insanity. (Lapham’s Quarterly)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility.” — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1892
🎧 Jonathan Raymond, founder of Refound, a firm that believes we should all be aiming for more Yoda and less Superman, talks about Five Steps to Hold People Accountable on this episode of Coaching For Leaders. He teaches us a common language around accountability that works for almost everyone. Plus, he teaches us the five key steps of the accountability dial.
📒 By the one-time federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, Doing Justice is an important overview of the way our justice system works, and why the rule of law is essential to our society. Using case histories, personal experiences, and his own inviting writing and teaching style, Preet Bharara shows the thought process we need to best achieve truth and justice in our daily lives and within our society.
Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate link; I get a small commission when you make a purchase.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Just a reminder that if you’re not signed up as a paid member, you won’t be getting weekly updates like this in addition to Wednesday’s leadership and communications essays.
👉 Members receive that additional essay, plus curated stories, and audio and book recommendations every Friday. You can join the club by signing up now.