I was just watching a news program where a reporter asked a woman on the street, "Who do you think is to blame for the government shutdown?"
"Congress,” she said. “It's just everybody blaming everyone else and nothing gets done."
Indeed, our political leaders have exhibited appallingly dysfunctional behavior in recent years. But the irony is, by asking and answering that question, the media and the woman were also playing the blame game. It’s become so pervasive, so automatic, I don’t think anyone even notices they’re doing it anymore.
The following day a business news station had the CFO of one of America’s largest and most prominent companies on. About a minute into the interview, the show’s host cut the guy off in mid-sentence to go live to an all-too-familiar fear-mongering and finger-pointing rant by one of our top political leaders on the floor of the senate.
Look, we all behave badly from time-to-time. You and I are no exception. But I’ve spent more than three decades in business meetings, press interviews, hallway discussions, and boardrooms with thousands of other executives. And I’m here to tell you that, in the business world, those who play the blame game don’t survive.
Don’t get me wrong. Quite a few do manage to get to the VP or even the CEO level, at least for a time. It does happen. But they all eventually flame out, and some self-destruct in pretty spectacular fashion, I might add.
Granted, not every business leader who understands what personal accountability means is a rip-roaring success. But if you don’t get the connection between getting paid the big bucks and the buck stopping with you, then the odds of winning big are stacked against you because you’re simply not qualified for that kind of responsibility.
Now, I will make a distinction between what we say in private versus what we say in public. There are times for executives to have open and brutally frank discussions about what’s going wrong and how to fix it. Sometimes we have to call each other on the carpet and slug it out. But we’re usually savvy enough to keep it within the four walls of the office. Airing your dirty laundry never turns out well.
That’s why I’m always surprised and disgusted to see business leaders make one excuse after another, apparently without realizing how much it diminishes their credibility and their company’s brand. During his brief tenure as CEO of HP, Leo Apotheker blamed everything and everyone from earthquakes and tsunamis to competitors and predecessors for his strategic missteps and his company’s poor performance.
I have no idea what the culture was like at SAP, where Apotheker earned his executive stripes, but that sort of thing simply isn’t tolerated at well-run companies that breed great leaders. Which is probably why Apotheker was ousted from the software giant before being inexplicably hired by HP’s board.
Over the years, I’ve personally known a number of executives who attempted to build their careers and gain political clout by diminishing their peers. None of them amounted to much.
So where do leaders learn that sort of behavior? It comes from experience, both growing up and at work.
When I was a young engineer at Texas Instruments a hundred years ago, I had a run-in with a fellow employee. Both of us went crying to management, pointing fingers at each other, and our boss simply said, “Work it out yourselves or I’ll fire you both” and that was that. Lesson learned.
Thinking back on it, I should have known better. When I was six or seven, I remember coming home angry and upset about a fight with one of my good friends. My mom said I should apologize. I said, “But mom, he started it.”
She said, “Maybe he did. Maybe he thinks you did. It doesn’t really matter. If you want to stay friends, somebody has to be the bigger person and say ‘I’m sorry.’ Maybe that should be you.”
So that’s what I did. My friend was relieved and everything went back to normal. Lesson learned. So why did I need to relearn it 15 years later in my first professional job out of school?
The truth is that people with the most leadership potential are always testing their environment, pushing the envelope, searching for ways to get attention, make friends, beat competitors, gain influence, grow the business – whatever their goals happen to be at the time. We do it throughout our lives.
And while the lessons we learn when we’re young and impressionable have great power, we’re always testing them because you never know; things change. Regimes change. Rules change. And power and affluence change people who make the rules. That’s why organizations, companies, governments, even entire cultures, can change so rapidly – more rapidly than you might expect.
That’s why I’m concerned about our most visible leaders making excuses and shirking responsibility. I’m concerned that it’s being viewed and replicated across our media-centric and internet-addicted culture. And I’m concerned that it’s resonating with powerful cultural trends, namely political correctness, entitlement, and the coddling of our children and ourselves.
That’s why it’s so important that we – as parents, leaders, and individuals – hold ourselves accountable and quit playing the blame game. And when I say quit, I mean cold turkey. If I see it on air, I’m changing the channel. If I read it online, I’m done with the writer and whoever tweeted or posted it. If I see a CEO do it, I’m not buying her company’s products. That’s my stand to uphold and stop the erosion of one of our culture’s most precious traits. Hope you join me.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.