The Slow Death of Responsibility

“Nope.”

That’s how Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the News Corp. global media empire, answered when a member of the British Parliament asked him whether he was ultimately responsible for the phone hacking scandal that is engulfing his company and tarnishing British journalism.

It’s the week’s best example of how responsibility is dying a slow death.

So who is responsible for all of this? “The people I trusted to run it and maybe the people they trusted.” But not him, of course. As chairman, he apparently is willing to reap the benefits of his position but ignore some of the troublesome responsibilities that come with it. An organization’s leader is the one who sets the example and the tone for others to follow. Murdoch does that for News Corp. It’s patently ridiculous to believe that certain practices and attitudes that go against the desires of the person in charge would be allowed to continue over a period of decades.

I learned one of the greatest leadership responsibility lessons of my life when I was in the fifth grade. I learned it from my baseball coach. This man was a royal, Grade A jerk. A tyrant, really. If you couldn’t do something properly, it was your fault. You’d get yelled at and have to run laps around the ball field. He would gesticulate with “how did this loser get on my team?” motions when you didn’t swing at a pitch down the middle or the ball went under your glove. It was a bad season.

But the lesson actually didn’t “click” until several years later when I was in high school. I don’t know why I was thinking of that jerk, but it dawned on me one day that he didn’t take any responsibility for anything. He was the “coach,” but he didn’t teach me how to play the game. He didn’t give me tips. He didn’t spend any time with me. He didn’t invest himself in my success. All he was interested in was trying to get the fifth and sixth graders who sucked the least out on the field. That’s not responsibility. At best, that’s simply showing up. At worst, it’s negligence.

Perhaps that’s why I nurture a slow burn of abhorrence for “leaders” who shackle their subordinates with the blame for failure — those who are two or three or five or seven pay grades below the chief. That’s so, so easy to do. It requires no fortitude, no vision, no guidance, no effort, no … responsibility.

Responsibility in leadership is so, so important. It’s about holding yourself accountable and encouraging others to hold you accountable, too. It’s about service to your colleagues. Take responsibility for investing in their success and you are a lock to become a success yourself. It’s automatic, almost. It’s about acknowledging mistakes — particularly your own role in making or allowing them — and then accepting them as lessons for improvement. And, at times, it’s about giving up your position when it’s in everyone’s best interest to do so.

The truth is, I really don’t think responsibility is dying a slow death. I believe that there are many, many more non-Murdochs than Murdochs in this world.

It’s just a bit disheartening to see such a bad example given a global platform.

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