Responsibility has been in the news lately.
In a time of never-ending obfuscation, gaslighting, spitefulness, and mendacity, it seems appropriate to return to the plain spoken wisdom of Harry Truman.* President Truman had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that simply said, “The buck stops here.” Truman received the sign as a gift and only kept it on his desk for a short period of time, but the message and image stuck with him for the rest of his life.
Truman was saying that he was responsible. There is no need to blame anyone else for this. I own the issue.
Responsibility has always been at the heart of leadership because it is inherently focused on others as opposed to self-preservation. Truman is just one example, but there are many others in our country’s history. There are famous individuals who regularly took responsibility for their actions — such as Roger Williams, George Washington, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, A. Philip Randolph, and General Dwight Eisenhower — just as there are millions of less famous examples we can turn to. Individuals such as the soldiers who charged up Utah Beach and Omaha Beach at Normandy on D-Day, accepting responsibility to rid the world of an especially horrible example of bigotry, xenophobia, demagoguery, and fascism.
History doesn’t look kindly on people in positions of power who refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Historian Joseph J. Ellis has described Thomas Jefferson as someone “who combined great depth with great shallowness, massive learning with extraordinary naivete, piercing insights into others with daunting powers of self-deception.” Jefferson famously wrote of slavery, “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Emancipations by well-known figures of the era such as Robert Carter, Edward Coles, and Richard Randolph (Jefferson’s cousin), as well as hundreds of property owners forgotten to history, show, however, that Jefferson abdicated responsibility. In reality, he was not looking for an answer to the question of what happens once the slaves are freed.
When we blame someone else or outside events for our situation, we are focusing on protecting ourselves and passing the buck. And when we do so, blame becomes part of our language and part of our culture. As leadership consultant Dan Norenberg wrote on the topic, “When blame becomes prevalent…you see the following:
- Problems don’t get solved
- Mistrust replaces trust
- Collaboration suffers as people start working against each other rather than with each other.”
Unfortunately, we have an individual in the White House who came into the office blaming others: immigrants, the previous administration, bureaucrats, foreign governments, our allies…the list is almost endless. Thus it has always been with Donald Trump, who through a checkered business career never took responsibility for multiple bankruptcies and failures. Blaming someone else wasn’t a bug of his campaign, it was a key feature. It is reactionary politics, which as legal- and social-policy writer Stephen L. Carter noted in another context, is “designed to bypass the rational faculties of its targets.”
Refusing to take responsibility is about the “me” instead of the “we.” True, virtually every successful politician is preoccupied with his or her own feelings, interests, or situation. That’s natural. In watching the Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History on PBS during the pandemic, I’ve seen how even those who are preoccupied with self can still accept responsibility. One would be hard-pressed to find two more self-absorbed individuals than Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. Alice Roosevelt Longsworth’s famous quote about her father, Teddy, sums it up nicely: “My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.” Yet both men worked through difficult personal traumas, were aware of the needs of their fellow citizens, and they acted on that awareness. Their “me” turned into a “we” and the country was transformed for the better.**
Recently, the citizens of our country and, in fact, the world have — by and large — accepted responsibility for each other. We have set aside our own wants and needs so the most vulnerable among us wouldn’t die a preventable death. We don’t know the people who will be saved by our sheltering in place, but we are taking those actions in any event because we are accepting responsibility for the well-being of our fellow citizens. As an anonymous author recently wrote:
“When you go out and see the empty streets, the empty stadiums, the empty train platforms, don’t say to yourself, ‘It looks like the end of the world.’ What you’re seeing is love in action. What you’re seeing, in that negative space, is how much we do care for each other, for our grandparents, for the immuno-compromised brothers and sisters, for people we will never meet.
People will lose jobs over this. Some will lose their businesses. And some will lose their lives. All the more reason to take a moment, when you’re out on your walk, or on your way to the store, or just watching the news, to look into the emptiness and marvel at all of that love.
Let it fill and sustain you. It isn’t the end of the world. It is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness.”
Donald Trump has consistently stated that he doesn’t accept responsibility. To a greater degree, the president and those trying to shield him from political accountability are even more upset when others accept responsibility by their actions to stay at home. It is not surprising, but just another in an ever-growing list of examples of the leadership vacuum in the White House and in today’s Republican Party, that — it saddens me to say — has turned itself into a cult devoted to obtaining and maintaining power.
Stephen L. Carter noted in a 2012 interview that, “Democracy cannot flourish when electoral politics is exalted above all things. The entire point of the concern for civil society is that a successful nation needs its people to be focused on matters more important than transitory partisan advantage.”
We now face an existential crisis in a global pandemic. We also have a growing economic crisis and a long-simmering crisis around whether our democracy will survive. It is time for our leaders to take responsibility for something more than transitory partisan advantage. To focus on the “we the people” instead of on “me and mine.” Or it is time they give up — or more likely be relieved of — their positions of power.
Be responsible. Live with a generous and loving mindset. Stay safe and stay healthy this week.
More to come…
*I’ve quoted Truman recently in another post. And yes, I realize this sentence isn’t a good example of plain speaking. So if you are wondering, I’m speaking of a time of cover ups, psychological manipulation, meanness, and lying.
**Teddy Roosevelt lost his mother and wife on the same day — Valentine’s Day in 1884 —and Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio at age 39.