Character Issues: Responsibility — its apparent demise

September 28, 2008 7:36 pm Published by

Just some musings and observations from the past week– from the news, working with some businesses, and some reading.

It appears that the character quality of responsibility is slowly (?) disappearing from at least some parts of our culture.  It is an odd experience — on the one hand, to be dealing with businesses and managers where they are all about responsibility — both giving it and expecting it from managers, sales people, and employees at all levels.  While on the other hand, to see “leaders” (I use the term loosely) who seem to spend most of their time and effort in avoiding responsibility — making excuses, but mainly blaming others.

And what is really interesting is that many seem to be attempting to place “responsibility” on institutions (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac), career categories (mortgage brokers, investment bankers), political parties (“its the fault of …Republicans, …Democrats”), even laws (“its due to the repeal of the … Act).  Funny.  I thought individuals made choices and complete actions.

Similarly, it appears that many of today’s leaders want to take responsibility for “fixing” other people’s mistakes (at least that is the claim on the front end of a decision to be implemented over time, with the actual results to be determined).  And even the general populace (or maybe it is the media’s presentation of the populace) seem to want someone else to fix problems.  But rarely do I hear individuals stepping up and saying, “I was wrong. . . I misjudged the situation and had an error in judgment. . . I made a mistake.”

Why is this?  Fear of being sued?  Being afraid of public embarrassment?  People not really believing they did anything wrong?

And yet in business settings in which I am working, I consistently have seen individuals who have “messed up” and who admit it, apologize, and attempt to rectify the situation.  Now, interestingly, an apparent difference is that it is clear who made the decision or committed the action.  And also, members of the system in which they function hold them accountable — and “call them” on their mistake.

So maybe one factor we need to work towards in the “public sector” (in this case, government) is to clarify when a decision is made and who is responsible.  But the challenge seems to lie in the fact that, many times, in government it takes multiple parties to make and implement a decision (the Senate, the House of Representatives, the President).  So when multiple parties are involved, does that mean no one is responsible?  Or, conversely, does it actually mean that all parties who are involved are responsible (my current position).

It is just that the juxtaposition is stark.  In small to medium businesses (I think it may be different in larger corporations), doing “business” means making and implementing decisions, taking risks, and managing the results.  And if you make a poor decision (or fail to implement a good decision), you experience the consequence.  In the public sector of government, the whole process and concept seems foreign, even counter-cultural.

For me, until the practice of being able to hold public officials (or those within large business organizations) accountable for decisions made and actions taken, I have little hope of good decisions being made and implemented (“good decisions” being ones with that have positive results).

I am open to your thoughts and comments (just click on the title of the blog and it will send you to the comment section OR go to and scroll down to the comment section).


Published by
September 28, 2008 7:36 pm


  • Keith says:

    I had an interesting discussion yesterday with an Asian friend of mine who talked about the cultural differences between Asians (specifically Chinese – He is an architech from Hong Kong) and Americans. He said that the Chinese try very hard to not make mistakes, which leads them to very safe solutions. Americans, however, try very hard to find creative solutions which leads them to take greater risks. Are Americans greater risk takers because we do poorer job of holding people accountable for their mistakes? Probably. My friend noted that there seems to be little shame in failure in America. Do we want to bring back shame as a means of holding people accountable?
    Choosing all safe solutions is not necessarily better than choosing some risky solutions mixed in with some safe ones. I think the issue is taking unnecessary risks with OPM (other people’s money). That’s what I consider to be the problem with sub-prime lending and borrowing.

  • Doug Tucker says:


    I enjoy your observations. The whole area of character and the issues you point out is exacly what our MERIT Character-Driven Leadership program addresses. The MERIT Integrated Solutions entire suite of services provides tangible solutions to helping organziations build and sustain a character-driven culture.

    Knowing your concern and heart for the importance of character I would like to discuss how we could colloboarate more proactively on ways that would position our solutions within the corporate and government marketplace. We had 10 days ago our MERIT I training. It was humbling how each participant accepted and reacted to our plans.

    Let us know how we can help colloborate to continue to support the importance of character and how we must all engage to do our part to bring forth viable solutions that can have an impact and make a difference.

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