“I’m not committing the murders. And that’s what people need to understand. I’m not committing the murders. The police commissioner is not committing it. The council is not committing it. So how can you fault leadership? You know this has been five years of 300-plus murders, and I don’t see it as a lack of leadership.”
—Baltimore Mayor Jack Young, responding to criticism over another year of violent crime in the city, with the number of murders about to reach 300.
Any elected official foolish enough to make such a statement should just resign in disgrace. He is incapable of competent leadership, because he doesn’t understand what it is that leaders do. They are responsible for the welfare of those who follow them, depend on them, trust them. Because they have taken on this responsibility, they are accountable to everyone in the organization—in his case, a municipality—for a deterioration in conditions there.
I don’t know that I have ever heard of a mayor, a governor, a President or any elected executive make such a pathetic, weak, cowardly statement absolving himself or herself for blame when conditions in the city, state or nation in any area become intolerable. I’m trying to think of any leader in any field who tried this pusillanimous tactic. Those who report to such an incompetent leader cannot possibly continue to have any faith in his character or judgment.
Imagine a basketball coach of a losing college team telling the press, “Hey, don’t blame me! I didn’t miss all those baskets!” Imagine a general who has lost a battle taking the exact opposite position of General Lee after the failure of Pickett’s Charge, meeting the battered survivors as they limped back over the battlefield, and saying, “It was all my fault!.” Imagine a general who had ordered the charge saying instead, “Don’t blame me! It wasn’t me that couldn’t shoot straight!”
Many times in leadership, of course, a bad result is literally not the leader’s fault, but the leader is still accountable, because that is the job. As a stage director, I led productions in which I felt, and the cast felt, that I had done excellent work, creating art and entertainment worthy of praise and profit, and yet the show flopped. When this happened (which fortunately was rare), I had no choice but to take the position that I had done something wrong, because my job had been not just to direct the show, but to make sure it succeeded. Whether it does or not, whether any leader’s efforts succeed, are frequently hostage to moral luck, and many factors over which he or she had no control. Successful, revered, acclaimed leaders in any field are lucky. Some are more lucky than good. Anyone knows that, if they are adults and have done anything in their own lives at all.
Nonetheless, nobody wants to be led by a leader whose reaction when things go wrong is to absolve himself of fault, and deny responsibility. The message of such a craven response is “You’re on your own!”
Perhaps the worst consequence of displays like Young’s is that they send aspiring and future leaders exactly the wrong message,perhaps making the next generation of leaders just as incompetent and unworthy of the role as he is. The most effective means of countering this message is for it to immediately lead to his removal.