Collective Responsibility and Leadership

[May 6, 2019] Two things came together yesterday that got me to thinking about a post-modern rallying-cry of many young people today. Collective responsibility – individual responsibility for the actions of others – is not new but its application to a range of modern problems is now more noticeable.

Earlier in the day, I was listening to a professor at Harvard University speak about the importance of personal responsibility and how certain aspects are related to success over one’s lifetime: work hard and stay out of trouble were the two main factors. A young female college student asked him how we could even fathom individual responsibility when we should be more concerned about bigger world problems and thus the importance of collective responsibility.

Later, I sat down on my couch to watch a movie with my wife; one that I’d not seen in decades but got me to thinking about the same subject. The movie, starring Burt Lancaster, called The Train (1964), is loosely based on the non-fiction book Le front de l’art1 by Rose Valland. The Train, like the recent movie Monuments Men, centers on Nazi-stolen art. As the Nazi army tries to move a cache of stolen art pieces, the French Resistance undermines the effort. I was surprised at how the movie showed the bravery and the sacrifices made by so many of those in the French Resistance and the great difficulties they worked under.

The contrast between the plump, spoiled college student sitting in a safe lecture hall versus the men and women of the French Resistance of occupied WWII France was dramatic. I find it hard even to find a word that describes and distinguishes these differences, yet the college student was loudly complaining about how hard it was to live in this world of “horrible unfairness.”

Alas, The Train is just a movie. But it does help in giving some insight into the lives and conditions that those before us have experienced. Their lives of those before us were much more difficult and the lives of them, their families, and friends were at a higher risk than anyone can reasonably imagine today. For example, in my grandparent’s generation infant mortality rates were 15 times higher than when I was born.

Collective responsibility is a subject that should be discussed; at least discussed reasonably. We should also seek out examples in the past that help us get a better understanding. In the Old Testament, some examples are the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and Sodom and Gomorrah. If we truly want to learn about collective responsibility, this is a good place to start.


  1. This is the autobiography of Rose Valland, the heroine of the French resistance and human art during the Nazi occupation of Paris. The ERR, the Nazi unit in charge of stealing works of art, chose the Jeu de Paume as a repository for the artworks taken from Jewish collectors, artists, and art merchants, eventually accumulating around 20,000 works. Using her secret but good command of German and her prodigious memory, Rose spied daily on the works that came in, the owners they had been stolen from, and (if they were sent elsewhere) their disposition. She entered all these bits of information by hand into her secret notebooks, which, at the end of the war, proved invaluable for tracing thousands of pieces of art so that they could be returned to the families of the rightful owners. She was highly decorated in France and received the US Medal of Freedom in 1951.’art
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “Collective Responsibility and Leadership

  1. lydia truman

    Loved your article today and the comments section is very educational.

  2. JT Patterson

    The practice of blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death is the longest example of collective responsibility. In this case, the blame was cast not only on the Jews of the time but upon successive generations. This comes from Matthew 27:25-66 New International Version (NIV) 25: “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!'”

  3. Yusaf from Texas

    Courage can be found in many places but when it comes to collective responsibility it appears to subside a bit.

    1. Gil Johnson

      Normally, only the individual actor can accrue culpability for actions that they freely cause. The notion of collective culpability seems to deny individual moral responsibility.

    2. Kenny Foster

      Does collective responsibility make sense? History is filled with examples of a wronged man who tried to avenge himself, not only on the person who has wronged him, but on other members of the wrongdoer’s family, tribe, ethnic group, religion, or nation.

    1. Ronny Fisher

      Rose Valland is one of the greatest and yet unknown heroines of World War II. After risking her life spying on the Nazis, day after day for four long years, Rose lived to fulfill her destiny: locating and returning tens of thousands of works of art stolen by the Nazis during their occupation of France.

    2. Roger Yellowmule

      How come we don’t hear more about her and those like her. Of course, her life might be offensive to the pathetic weaklings of the young in Western society.

  4. The Kid 1945

    The story told in “The Train” was based on reality but somewhat distorted. I would like to have seen a documentary on the events surrounding the train that actually had the Nazi-stolen artworks. Any one every hear of it?

  5. Drew Dill

    I believe this subject will be written about much more over the next couple of years. Watch and read what you see. Don’t believe everything you read however because most of it will be suspect. Keep your head.

    1. Max Foster

      During the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany, the Germans applied collective responsibility: any kind of help given to a person of Jewish faith or origin was punishable by death, and that not only for the rescuer but also for his/her family. This was widely publicized by the Germans. During the occupation, for every German killed by a Pole, 100-400 Poles were shot in retribution. Communities were held collectively responsible for the purported Polish counter-attacks against the invading German troops. Mass executions of łapanka hostages were conducted every single day during the Wehrmacht advance across Poland in September 1939 and thereafter.

    2. Drew Dill

      Good point Max and thanks for helping make my point. Historical examples should be used repeatedly to help get this point across.

  6. Albert Ayer

    I would like to highlight Gen Satterfield’s DAILY FAVORITES section today:
    He has pointed to two articles that show that Google is suppressing free speech. That is what happens when people go off the rails and abandon individual responsibility for “collective responsibility.” Personally, I believe that indiv resp supersedes coll resp. My opinion only, of course.

    1. Bryan Lee

      Well said, Albert. I’m a little surprised that Gen Satterfield has not yet dumped Facebook and Google as some of his multimedia platforms. They aren’t really giving us much. The comments section here is far superior because there is actually a discussion.

      1. Mr. T.J. Asper

        Thanks Bryan, a point I was going to make also. These are not the only ones. I suspect they are getting pressure from non-free govts across the world to help “make the world a safer place.” Of course, they see it as suppression of free speech.

        1. Eddie Ray Anderson, Jr.

          I hope you’re teaching your HS students about this. Great examples.

        2. Greg Heyman

          Yes, I agree that we must teach reality from the early days of formal schooling or we will continue to have ‘snowflakes’ at colleges.

    2. Maureen S. Sullivan

      Good comments, fellows! 🙂

  7. Army Captain

    Interesting …. are you sure, you’re not a philosopher of some kind?

    1. Janna Faulkner

      Army Capt, you are just too quick for me to get the first comment in of the day. Good point, however, that you note that Gen. Satterfield is addressing an important issue today and perhaps is pointing to the origins of the problem we are facing in most of the West.

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