[May 15, 2015] There’s a very old saying in the U.S. military that cuts to the core of leadership. The saying is that, you can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate responsibility. You will always find a commander in charge and the success or failure of any operation rests squarely on that person’s shoulders. That may seem harsh but with it comes a certain set of incentives that are understandable.
Another old saying in the military is that “stuff rolls downhill” and yes that may be true (we didn’t use the word “stuff” however). It means that the lower ranking members will be held accountable for any screw-up. That is an unfair representation. In fact, responsibility rolls uphill. Those at the top are held accountable for failures; at least in the military that is supposed to be the case. When it’s not, something is vastly wrong.
This idea that you can’t delegate responsibility is unfortunately a waning concept.1 In U.S. politics, for example, that is decidedly not the case. I once worked for politicians and one put it to me clearly; he said, “Everything that goes right I will take credit for and everything that goes wrong I will blame you.” It seems that no politician will ever admit that they did something wrong and if they did, it was someone else’s fault.
To confuse things further, many people use the terms responsibility and authority interchangeably; thus explaining the reason they say that “you can delegate responsibility.” Speaking of politics, someone once said that our political leaders are fond of delegating responsibility but never authority. In other words, they give subordinates all the blame if something goes wrong while not giving them the authority to get it done right.
Authority means that you have the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. Responsibility means you are moral, legal, or mental accountable and in the military this concept is closely associated with honor and integrity. While related, authority and responsibility are distinctly different concepts. Real leaders understand the difference and act accordingly.
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