When leaders seem more interested in shifting blame away from themselves to literally anyone else following a screw-up, it might be because of best-practices that they internalized during their formative years. Tactics that were highly-effective at the time, but are dangerously inappropriate now.
Welcome back! Spring 2020 has certainly ˜been … interesting. My last column here on Business Reporter posted on 21stApril, right as American politicians were just beginning to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. It seemed like everyone went into lockdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Ninety days later, we find ourselves trying to pick up where we left off as there hadn’t been a gap. As if there hadn’t been a half million preventable deaths worldwide during the interval. As if the half-hearted attempts to ‘re-open the American economy’ hadn’t been a incompetent mistake that led to tens of thousands of unnecessary infections and deaths.
Here in the U.S.A., four of our states have been – against all reason and science – enthusiastically encouraging their citizens to sprint up the proverbial ramp to the slaughterhouse: Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas. These states’ leaders were brazenly aggressive in trying to ‘get everything back to normal’ before it was prudent to. We’ve been paying the price in overloaded hospitals and morgues throughout the spring. Writing from one of those four states, I can attest that health professionals warned our elected officials ‘returning to work’ was a terrible idea … yet our state government did it anyway.
A reasonable person might ask ‘why?’ and perhaps ‘WHAT IN GOD’S NAME WERE YOU THINKING?!?’ I submit for consideration that the primary reasons why this happened might not be so much a matter of what our politicians were thinking as it was how they’ve been trained to think during their formative years. Consider this Los Angeles Times opinion piece from Katherine Hu titled Greg Abbott is a hypocrite. Pausing Texas’ reopening won’t fix the damage he’s done:
‘Texas is one of the worst-hit states in the country for COVID-19. On Tuesday, the state broke its record high of 5,000 new infections in a single day. But as we know, everything is bigger in Texas – the next day, the state bested itself by racking up 6,200 new infections. It’s a disaster that Gov. Greg Abbott needs to take full responsibility for. … Despite this mess, however, Abbott has continued to point fingers at anyone but himself — he blamed young people for not sanitizing their hands enough … Abbott’s epiphany that “there is never a reason for you to have to leave your home unless you do need to go out” is not a sign of repentance. Rather, it is his attempt to distract people from his mismanagement of the coronavirus response in Texas and his exaltation of personal liberties at the expense of public health.’
Texas’s famous ‘NO cost is too high to pay for FREEDOM!’ mentality should have been declared forever obsolete and scrapped after our first preventable COVID-19 death.
I want you to pay close attention to that last sentence because it’s key to understanding how American leaders have been conditioned to act since the end of the Cold War: his attempt to distract people from his mismanagement isn’t so much a damning indictment of incompetence as it is an acknowledgement of how powerful people in America stay powerful. That is to say, the model ‘successful leader’ since 1990 has claimed credit for anything that the public perceived as even slightly positive during his watch and had redirected responsibility or else assigned blame for everything that the public perceived as negative to someone else. Anyone else. It doesn’t matter if the person targeted has anything to do with the ‘bad thing.’ The disinterested and largely uninformed public would accept the lie and move on to the next major news event. This process is called ‘blame shifting.’ It’s so common as to be considered standard operating procedure for elected leaders, corporate executives, and celebrities.
If this seems childish, well … it is. When I was a little kid, our teachers taught us a game called ‘hot potato.’ The rules were simple enough: the teacher would start playing some recorded music and would hand one student an object, like a beanbag. The object was usually heavy enough to be unwieldy, but soft enough that it wouldn’t cause injury when it was flung … and it would be flung. Whoever had the ‘potato’ couldn’t keep hold of it for more than two seconds. They were required to transfer it to another person. Keeping hold of it for too long meant you were ‘burned’ and lost the game. Throwing it on the ground meant you’d ‘ruined’ the potato and likewise lost the game. You had to fling it into someone else’s lap. Whoever was left holding the potato when the music randomly stopped also lost. This game always led to wild shrieking, as children desperately attempted to divest themselves of the hated object. The closer kids felt they were to the end of the round, the more wildly they tried to stick anyone else with the problem.
You’d think this was just a silly party game. In its own way, though, it taught children a valuable lesson for later life: don’t get stuck holding the unwanted object when the music stops. The singular most unwanted object in most adults’ working lives is personal accountability for one’s mistakes. Accountability is the sort of thing that get a person sued into bankruptcy here in America. It gets you voted out of office. It ruins whatever grifts you were running. It might even get you arrested if you’ve lost your political top-cover.
In the post DESERT STORM and pre ENDURING FREEDOM era U.S. military, my fellow officers used to joke about how the final phase of every training mission was when HQ deployed the ‘blame-shifters’ to transfer the residual stench of the commanders’ and staff officers’ inevitable cock-ups. We’d joke about these notional ‘blame shifters’ as if they were old school towed field artillery pieces, like the old American M3 anti-tank gun or the British ‘two pounder.’ Notionally, ‘blame shifters’ were unwieldy contraptions that required a crew of soldiers to drag into position and were of questionable effectiveness when employed to lob responsibility for a bone-headed mistake from whomever was responsible for it to literally any other target in range.
Towed artillery is the perfect analogy for this process. Does this look complicated and unwieldy? So is trying to shift responsibility for your own bad decision onto someone who (a) wasn’t to blame, (b) knows exactly what you’re trying to do to them, and (c) is therefore highly motivated to expose your screw-up before you can weasel out of being held responsible.
A good example of ‘deploying the blame shifters’ might involve an After Action Report finding that inadequate commercial latrine pods were present in the battalion manoeuvre area. The BN Logistics Officer (S-4) is responsible for scheduling commercial Porta-Loo units for exercises, so he’s starts ‘holding the potato.’ The S-4 blames the BN Operations Officer (S-3) for failing to submit the purchase order in time to award the contract. The S-3 tosses the potato right back by correctly pointing out that the S-4 was responsible for making all arrangements based on the Operations Order posted a week prior to the Porta-Loo ordering deadline. The S-4 then blames the BN Signals Officer (S-6) for not having a working radio in the manoeuvre area that could have been used to phone up the Porta-Loo company and get more units. Repeat until the music stops and the exasperated BN Commander dings someone’s annual performance report.
We’d often joke about how attempts to ‘retroactively re-assign responsibility’ – “R-cubed,’ for short – would often fail much as a light cannon shot would bounce off the armour of most tanks. ‘Armour,’ in most cases, meant extensive paperwork that shielded the target from getting ‘stuck with’ blame for some preventable and embarrassing failure. This is why ‘survival’ in the olive-drab edition of office politics depended so much of meticulous generation of paperwork that pre-emptively fixed responsibility for key events to other people. I know that I spent more time as a staff officer honing my skills at cubicle warfare as I ever spent studying real war.
So … what does all this have to do with the pandemic? Timing. Specifically, the time period in which the people who currently ‘lead’ (and I use that term very loosely) our country, states, counties, and communities was very different from what we’re experiencing now. During the Grunge Era of 1991 to 2001, the stakes in play for nearly everyone in America were far lower than they’ve been since the turn of the Millennium. Think about it: the Cold War had ended without World War III … The Persian Gulf War ended in days with a low coalition KIA list … the American economy was roaring without many major shocks … the AIDS crisis dropped out of the public consciousness as if it had gone away. Things seemed good. There weren’t any existential threats facing the country. Why stress over … [gestures] … complicated stuff?
Young, ambitious, and wealthy young people (mostly men) learned by experience that the public didn’t really want to see ‘accountability’ for major scandals. They wanted uncomfortable stories to just … go away. Blame shifting worked … and a generation of future senior leaders learned the art of tossing the blame potato rather than learning how to lead with transparency, integrity, and personal accountability. I mean … why should they? Simply denying the facts was much faster, cheaper, and less ‘expensive’ politically than actually addressing a real problem. Just say that the issue doesn’t exist. If that doesn’t work, lie and say that someone else is actually responsible for it.
Optimally, blame somebody who isn’t in the room and can’t defend themselves.
To be clear, I’m not in any way defending Governor Abbott’s decisions or positions regarding the pandemic. I only want to point out that I think I get why he’s reacted to the public health crisis the way that he has thus far. Facing the problem head-on and taking the painful measures needed to solve the problem would probably end his political career (and his possible presidential ambitions). Doing the right thing always comes with a cost. So, based on years of experience in high-level crisis management as a state judge during the naughty nineties. I’ll bet that he approached this unprecedented crisis leveraging the tactics that had worked so well for his contemporaries, his mentors, and influential public figures back then: he ordered his staff to roll out the blame shifters and redirected responsibility to whomever was in range … thereby eliminating any need to take responsibility for politically damaging (but medically necessary) action.
Hey, it worked in the nineties … when the stakes were low. Times change. As of the time I wrote this, Texas has acknowledged 295,000 infections and 3,582 deaths from COVID-19. It’s well past time to stop fobbing of the damned ‘hot potato’ and do what’s necessary. Lock the state down. Enforce mandatory quarantine and safe distancing. Eliminate evictions and homelessness. Cover people’s living expenses while it’s unsafe to work. And for God’s sake, don’t re-open the danged schools next week! Yeah, these decisions will hurt him politically; that’s a much better outcome than killing more Texans through indefensible inaction.
There’s an obvious leadership lesson in here for business leaders. So obvious that I’m not going to re-state it today. If any of us are still alive come Autumn, maybe we can revisit the topic then.
Pop Culture Allusion: None this week.
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.
Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.