Where does the buck stop?

A few months after I had joined a marketing company, the Export Director informed me that the company had decided to participate in a month-long trade show in a foreign country. It was proposed that our stall, in which we would display 2 machines, would be manned by a Senior Service Engineer and me. The Senior Service Engineer would look after the installation and operation of the displayed machines, while I would handle all business enquiries.

When I pointed out that I had absolutely no exposure to International Trade, he assured me that our company’s Agent in that country, who was extremely well-versed in International Trade, would guide me in all commercial/legal matters.

The trade show went off very well. Many visitors showed interest in our machines. One customer decided to buy both the displayed machines. Our Agent prepared the contract documents, which were signed on the last day of the trade show by the customer and by me on behalf of my company. The documents contained some clauses that I thought should not be there. When I asked our Agent about these clauses, he confirmed that these were standard clauses in any such contract. Considering the Export Director’s assurance, I signed the documents. The machines were handed over to the customer.

A few days after we returned to India, it turned out that our company could not claim the payment for the two machines because the contract documents were not suitable for machines that had been displayed in a trade show. (The contract documents would have been perfect if the machines had been shipped directly to the customer.) Our Managing Director was totally upset, but he said our first priority should be to recover the payment, adding ominously that a ‘post-mortem’ on the matter could be carried out after we recovered the payment.

We engaged the services of an Export Consultant, who managed to resolve the matter. Our company received the payment three months later. As expected, our MD summoned the Export Director and me to his room the moment he was informed that the payment had been received.

As soon as we were seated, our MD glared at me and asked, “How could you have signed a contract that contained such glaringly wrong clauses?” Before I could say anything, the Export Director said, “Sir, it was not his mistake. He only followed my instructions. Before taking up this assignment, he had reminded me that he had absolutely no exposure to International Trade. I had instructed him to follow our Agent’s guidance in all commercial/legal matters. When I told you this, you had expressed your reservations, but I had assured you that I have complete confidence in our Agent. It is my mistake.”

Our MD was absorbed in silent thought for about 30 seconds, during which I fervently hoped he wouldn’t take any drastic action against the Export Director. I was stunned when he looked at the Export Director and said, “It’s not your mistake. I am to blame. It was wrong on my part to have accepted your assurance.” He turned to me and said, “I am sorry that we sent you on this assignment without training you properly.”

It would have been very easy for the Export Director to blame me for the mishap, but he chose to accept responsibility.

It would have been even easier for our MD to blame the Export Director and/or me for the mishap, but he chose to accept responsibility.

Both the Export Director and our MD had displayed the essential leadership quality of readily accepting the ultimate responsibility for a decision that has gone wrong. In other words, “The buck stops here!”

How many leaders (in business, politics or any other activity) readily accept the ultimate responsibility for decisions that have gone wrong?

How many leaders ‘pass the buck’?

What do we do when our decisions go wrong? Do we readily accept responsibility, or do we ‘pass the buck’?

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9 thoughts on “Where does the buck stop?

  1. ‘It’s not my job’ and ‘It’s his fault’ are common not just in the corporate world, but in the citizen’s world too – of bribery, littering, spitting, bad parking, encroaching, etc. It is the idea of ‘othering’ your evils and feeling good in turn.
    Excellent post on responsibility.

  2. Excellent post. We all make mistakes in our life. Accepting responsibility for all our actions good or bad, requires immense courage and maturity. The situation that you described where both MD and Director taking responsibility for their mistakes happens rarely. But sure it improves credibility of both managers.Taking ownership of mistakes can prevent from turning into a huge problem that’s going to be difficult to solve. When we hold our self accountable for our mistakes, we learn important lessons from the experiences that help us to avoid making the same mistake again.

  3. hmmm well if we look at the politcial scenario in our nation , none of the leaders will ever say the BUCK STOPS HERE.. even the most honest ones I have seen not do that..

    The orgnization i work for , mistakes can be very very bad, split second decisions need to be made.. BUT I have seen that mistakes do happen as what is right for me , may be wrong for someone else .. BUT I have seen that if you genuinely accept the mistake then the others stand by you always..

    if only people are like the directors you work for then things will be so much easier and many things will get resolved much easier

  4. Those were some excellent people you got to work with, Pro! Usually we see so much of ‘blaming the other’ happening in collective life – be it at workplace, community, any organization. When people are so ready and eager to take credit for all that goes well, that is why they shy away from owning up the responsibility when things go wrong. Maybe it is not so easy to stand up and say – I accept, I made a mistake. But it must be done.

  5. You know, it is so common a problem, so part of our culture – Passing the buck. Not taking responsibility if the results go wrong. Most often, people try to find a scapegoat to put the blame on. And, this can be stopped by following a good culture in your organization. I’ve worked in both kinds of organizations – 1. where passing the buck is a norm. 2. where people own up for their mess. I’m happy to say that I’m working in the second one right now, and it’s a great place to be in. Makes life much simpler. 🙂

  6. That’s an amazing display of character and leadership. Usually it’s the other way around that is people simply pass the buck! Shirking responsibility of actions is a common sight!

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