The First Step to Becoming a True Leader
Taking full responsibility for everything happening in your world of influence is the prerequisite to becoming a true leader
“Man must cease attributing his problems to his environment, and learn again to exercise his will — his personal responsibility.” - Einstein
There it was, hanging all alone at the end of the bunk. My breathing was heavy and I kept hearing the same words repeating in my ear.
“Don’t be the one, recruit. Don’t be the one who shuts down the whole base because you lost a weapon.” the drill instructor had yelled as the veins practically popped out of his neck. “Find it” had been the final command I heard as I sprinted across the sandy, flat field towards the barracks.
I had been named the Platoon Guide (leader of all the 75 other recruits) in the early weeks of Boot Camp and had managed to hang onto that role through rifle range week…which was mid-way through the duration of the entire Boot Camp. As I ran, my scattered thoughts kept touching on the fact that somehow I was still Platoon Guide…at least, until now. I ran into the squad bay and saw the weapon hanging on the bunk, unlocked.
One of the other recruits had gone to sick call that morning and had therefore been required to leave his M16 A2 service rifle in our — his — platoon’s custody. He had apparently told his bunkmate to watch over it, but in the hellish chaos of a usual Boot Camp morning, the bunkmate had forgotten about it, and we hadn’t taken the weapon with us to the range.
In the end, as the leader, I was the one responsible for his mistake.
Minutes before — during the rifle count at the range — we’d realized it was missing. We counted again and again. Sixty-five, 66…where’s 67??. A cold sweat had begun to trickle down my cheek.
A few minutes later, I was standing and looking at the weapon. I grabbed it, thankful it was still there so at least the entire base wouldn’t have to be locked down (as it is when a weapon is lost), and ran back across the field to the drill instructor. I knew that I’d be “fired” as Platoon Guide.
“Sir, this recruit [you talk in the third person in Boot Camp] found the weapon and confirmed that it was the missing weapon. This recruit should have ensured weapon count prior to leaving the squad bay.” I could have blamed the guy who had forgotten to tell his rack mate that he was going to sick call, but I didn’t — that was irrelevant. I had been assigned the task of ensuring that all weapons were accounted for. I had failed.
The drill instructor grabbed the weapon out of my hand the way an angry bear would maul a sapling. “You will not make that mistake again! You understand, recruit Klein?”
“Sir, yes, sir!” I shouted. I knew I’d just been “fired.”
“The buck stops here.”
— A sign on the oval office desk of President Harry S. Truman declaring his personal responsibility.
As a leader, especially a new one, sometimes we make mistakes and we can have the tendency to blame someone else to save face on our leadership abilities — doing so temporarily (and sometimes permanently) takes the heat off of us so that we don’t have to suffer the consequences of our mistakes. But this is how an awful disease starts inside of us — a disease that eventually sabotages our leadership ability and growth.
The disease is called “leadership victimization.”
This victimization mentality is dishonorable and is the antithesis of taking full responsibility…for EVERYTHING. We must start the process of taking responsibility by forgiving anyone or anything that has gone against our team’s success, thus erasing them as a cause for our problems. Blame or non-forgiveness is a quick and easy way out, but in the long run, blaming outside influences leads to the bitter, unhappy, discouraged mentality of a victim — this victim mentality is like a parasite that crawls into a leaders mind and eventually cripples their ability to lead.
Taking full responsibility for your team's failures is always hard to do at first and is often a shock to our system — it is much harder than blaming someone else because taking responsibility means taking all the heat for everything you and your team does wrong — it means resigning yourself to working hard to fix it.
When that shock and heatwave of taking the bull by the horns dissipates, though, it leaves in its wake a little seed — a seed of honorable and competent leadership. You may be embarrassed and in trouble for taking the heat for you and your team’s mistakes, failures, and shortcomings, but you now have honor growing inside of you, and that honor doesn’t leave room for the victimization parasites to thrive.
This seed of honor is watered every time you take responsibility. As you and this seed mature, the seed grows into a strong and powerful tree of honor that bears all of the other fruits of great leadership.
This strong oak of honorable leadership that you have chosen to cultivate over the parasite of victimization will provide comfort and shelter for those you lead amidst the cold rains of temptation and adversity. If you choose to remain a leader-victim in any way at all, however and do you not take responsibility for everything that happens with the team you lead, the good fruits cannot give sustenance to you or your team and your mission will likely fail.
The first thing we leaders must believe is that the buck stops with us. It’s no one else’s fault. Nothing is anyone else’s fault. If you want a different situation, set about changing it, and don’t let excuses thwart your mission. Excuses are the sound that parasite makes when it knocks at your brain and wants to slither into your soul.
Though we can’t control everything that happens to us and those we lead, we can control how we as leaders react to these things…there’s always an honorable way and it never blames.
Taking full responsibility for everything in our sphere of influence is our duty as honorable leaders.
“ Ninety-nine percent of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses.”
- George Washington Carver
Later that afternoon, one of the recruits had gotten a care package of Cheese Whiz and crackers in the mail from his mother. It was promptly confiscated since only good old Marine Corps chow was approved for consumption in Boot Camp.
For the next two days, I had to march behind the platoon instead of leading it, with the colors (flag or guidon) slung over my shoulder in shame, rolled up with rubber bands; the shiny point that usually glistened in the sun was caked with Cheese Whiz.
Truth be told, I’d had a hard time not laughing at the verbal harassment I received from the drill instructors of the other platoons passing by. They’d reminded me and the rest of us that we must take responsibility for ourselves and each other, of course…but they’d said so in more colorful terms. Two days later, the Drill Instructor unfurled our flag and authorized me to remove the Cheese Whiz from the crest of it.
He pulled me aside that evening. “Recruit Klein, you took responsibility and lived up to the consequences of your error. You’re still the Guide.” He paused. “You understand?”
A wave of relief swept over me. “Sir, yes, sir!” I said. An unauthorized smile cracked my lips and a re-affirmation of a lesson sank in…never blame others and never make excuses for your mistakes or theirs; take responsibility.
I was permitted to hold the position of Platoon Guide all the way through the rest of Boot Camp. At graduation, I carried the unfurled and shiny-tipped flag in front of the platoon and all of our families and honored guests.
It was an honor I’ll never forget.
“The price of greatness is responsibility.” -Winston Churchill