Refusing to take responsibility for consequences of one’s own mistakes is a bad thing. If anything can be worse, it’s putting the blame on others. Those who do so, whether in private or professional life, demonstrate their immaturity and lack of courage, to say the least. Sadly, it is often those at the top of organizational charts who are guilty of this bad practice which is the opposite of what leadership is about.
Naturally, this shameful practice has been around long before business corporations came into being – it’s probably as old as mankind. While the background and circumstances may vary from one epoch to another, the behavioral patterns remain very similar.
Consider project management, an area of ever-growing importance in contemporary organizations. According to various surveys, at least 30 percent (and that’s a very optimistic estimate) of projects end in failure. This could account for the alarming popularity of the following humorous theory, which states that the typical projects stages are:
- Search for the guilty
- Punishment of the innocent
- Praise and honors for the non-participants
Transferring the guilt and its consequences to the scapegoat takes place in steps 4 and 5, of course.
Back to scientific sources, an IBM survey on project failures concludes the following:
“Biggest barriers to success listed as people factors: Changing mindsets and attitudes – 58%. Corporate culture – 49%. Lack of senior management support – 32%.” Arguably, all these three are due to inadequate leadership. In my opinion, it is no coincidence that organizations with poor leaders in charge can neither execute projects properly nor get to the root cause of their failures. To be fair, though, even weak leaders can have their achievements when execution is used as the measure of success, as illustrated by the following story. Though over a quarter of millennium old, it seems disturbingly up to date as far as the blame-shifting mechanisms are concerned.
In spring 1756, in prelude to the Seven’s Year War, France set out to capture the Mediterranean island of Menorca which at that time belonged to Britain. To achieve their objective, the French sent a strong fleet, with an expeditionary corps of 15,000 men on board, from a nearby military harbor in Toulon.
This was eventually discovered by the British intelligence, and the disturbing news was passed to the Admiralty, the body responsible for command of the Royal Navy. Menorca’s strategically important harbor is located in the capital city, Mahon, and the entrance to the port was guarded by a fortress called fort St Philippe. Despite Menorca’s importance for England, the military resources assigned by the Admiralty to protect port Mahon were extremely inadequate: the British garrison was small in number, its commander, while courageous and with a good track record, was in his mid-eighties, the fortress walls were crumbling, and gun platforms were rotten.
In order to prevent the loss of the island, the Admiralty decided to send a rescue mission. A Vice-Admiral named John Byng was ordered to form a squadron of ships from Navy vessels moored in Portsmouth, sail to Menorca and prevent the French invasion. Again, the resources assigned by the Admiralty were grossly insufficient: the ships were in a bad condition, gunpowder supplies were low, the crews were incomplete, poorly trained and demoralized. Byng was horrified when he inspected what would be his fleet, and asked his superiors for more time so that he could fix at least some of the issues. Not only was his request rejected, but he was also ordered to leave port five days before the original deadline. In the meantime, the Admiralty promoted John Byng to full Admiral without an apparent reason. [This is pure speculation, but this decision reminds me of another weird promotion that took place two centuries later: when the situation of German troops during Battle of Stalingrad became hopeless, Hitler promoted the German commander, General von Paulus, to Field Marhall. The goal was to make von Paulus fight to the end and even to commit suicide (which could later be used by the Nazi propaganda) as no Field Marshal in German history had ever surrendered before. It didn’t work, and on the following day von Paulus capitulated]. Whatever the motives of the British Admiralty behind Byng’s promotion, it hardly made the new Admiral any happier, as he knew full well that the pathetic “fleet” he was given made his chances for success illusory.
Soon his squadron left Portsmouth, as per the Admiralty’s orders. It reached Gibraltar May 2nd by which time the French troops had landed on Menorca and seized the island except for the fort Saint Phillip, which it besieged. Byng’s fleet continued its mission to relieve the garrison and less than three weeks later it encountered a squadron of French men-of-war, and a battle started. The Admiral strictly followed Navy’s rules of engagement, especially the sacrosanct principle of keeping the ships in the line, which in this case meant that they could only enter the battle one after another, a huge tactical disadvantage as most of Byng’s ships remained too far from the enemy to be able to open fire. This somewhat bureaucratic approach, combined with the poor condition of the British ships, had to end badly. Several of Byng’s ships were seriously damaged (though none sank), and the French squadron sailed away without incurring any losses. Byng held a Council of War with his senior officers, and it was unanimously agreed that under the circumstances the British had no chance to either defeat the French fleet in another battle or to relieve the garrison in fort Saint Philipp. The Admiral therefore ordered his squadron to return to Gibraltar, intending to reinforce and return to Menorca better prepared for the battle. However, in the meantime the besieged British garrison at Port Mahon eventually surrendered to the French troops.
To cut a long story short, all hell broke loose in England as the loss of Menorca was not only a military defeat but also a PR disaster, and the public opinion wanted blood. The Admiralty, which was of course the main culprit, predictably blamed the poor admiral, heavily manipulating the evidence against him. Byng was arrested when still in Gibraltar, brought back to England, court-martialed, sentenced to death in a trial that most Navy officers regarded as judicial murder, and executed on board HMS Monarch in Portsmouth. Being an Admiral, he had the doubtful privilege of signalling the firing squad to shoot him (by raising a white handkerchief). It is exceptionally ironical that twelve years earlier Byng himself was a judge in another, almost identical court martial case which was held after a lost sea battle. An officer who blindly obeyed the Navy procedures (and followed the linear tactics instead of taking initiative, which contributed to a defeat) was acquitted, while another one, who aggressively chased and engaged the enemy (thus increasing the chances for victory) was dismissed from the Navy for breaking the rigid rules. It is hardly surprising that Byng expected acquittal given that the procedures remained the same and he did everything by the book. Clearly, he didn’t realize that the need to find a good scapegoat can overpower even the strongest of rules.
Stories like this one show how much damage poor leadership can cause. The price for low quality management is high not only because of the overall lower success rate (after all, some initially mediocre leaders can improve intellectually over time), but even more because the actual reasons for failure are usually swept under the carpet and the lessons from the bad experience are therefore not learnt. Strong leaders, on the other hand, not only tend to take the right decisions and successful actions most of the time, but they also have the guts to take responsibility for the occasional defeat and learn from their own mistakes. They know that in the long run the blame game cannot be won – it’s a lose-lose proposition, and the later the reality is acknowledged, the greater the losses.