Taking Ultimate Responsibility Makes Your Team Effective

01 Jun

7c4a33cad7e72e8e3f73ed2ec43627d7THE BUCK STOPS WITH YOU. 

When Abraham Lincoln made a mistake, he took ownership of it; when his subordinates made mistakes, he owned those, too.

Lincoln may not have been 100% responsible for Union losses of battles and men in the Civil War, but he shouldered that responsibility because he was the one who hired the Generals-In-Chief and the War Department secretaries; he was the Commander-In-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces.

In response, Lincoln tried his best to educate himself quickly on military theory and practice by reading books, and spent much time in the War Department – and on the front lines with his generals and the troops.

He may not have even been mostly responsible for the very first battle of the Civil War, the loss of Fort Sumter in April 1861, but he still took responsibility for it.

Newly hired Secretary of State William Seward thought his boss was making the wrong decision in trying to defend Fort Sumter in South Carolina, so he sent a warship called the Powhatan to Florida to help defend another fort, tricking Lincoln into approving the orders by hiding them in a stack of papers he sent to the White House for the President’s signature.

A few days later, Lincoln ordered the Powhatan to Fort Sumter to defend the fort, but the ship was already en route to Florida from Seward’s pseudo-orders.

The two tugboats attempting to resupply Fort Sumter weren’t shielded by the absent warship’s firepower, so the fort fell and the Civil War began.

Lincoln took the heat for the screw-up.

According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Lincoln “took upon himself the whole blame— said it was carelessness, heedlessness on his part— he ought to have been more careful and attentive.”[i]

Welles further said that Lincoln “often declared that he, and not his Cabinet, was in fault for errors imputed to them.”[ii]

Lincoln might well have been furious with Seward, but he stopped short of firing him, asking for his resignation, or publicly blaming him.

The President looked to himself first, knowing that he had kept Seward (and other cabinet members) in the dark about his covert plans to resupply the fort with tugboats and a warship, while informing Southern officials that if they interfered with the resupply that they “would be firing on bread” and not ammunition or troop reinforcements.

Lincoln also considered Seward, a man known for his wisdom and experience, too valuable an asset to his administration to let go over one incident.

Another example of a subordinate Lincoln took responsibility for was Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was under fire by Congress during the Union’s lagging war effort in 1862.

General George McClellan had a lot more friends in Congress than Stanton, so when the general withdrew his unsuccessful campaign from Virginia, the fury descended upon the War Department head.

Lincoln, who allowed McClellan to try to execute the ill-advised military plan that started the controversy, went to Capitol Hill to defend Stanton.

In a speech before a large crowd on the Capitol steps, Lincoln told the audience, “The Secretary of War is not to blame for not giving when he had none to give….I believe he is a brave and able man, and I stand here…to take upon myself what has been charged on the Secretary of War.”[iii]

Lincoln shifted the weight off Stanton’s shoulders so that he could do his job unencumbered, and he likely knew that Stanton’s capabilities couldn’t be exceeded by anyone else.

The irony was that Lincoln drew nothing but praise from the speech defending his employee, earning him great respect among many in Congress and the press.

The results?

  • Together, Stanton and Lincoln revised the master plan for defeating the Confederacy, one that was eventually executed successfully by Welles, General Ulysses S. Grant, and General William Tecumseh Sherman.
  • Lincoln devised criteria for assessing whether to keep or remove a general – one that led to the firing of McClellan (and three others) before finding Grant.
  • Seward and Stanton played key roles in winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery.
  • Lincoln, for all the errors he and his subordinates committed, is consistently ranked by historians and public polls as among the greatest Presidents and leaders in American history.

The lesson?

Take responsibility for all of your decisions no matter how far-reaching.  Don’t pass the buck, hang your people out to dry, or treat them like sacrificial lambs.  Although your subordinates may suffer consequences at your hand for their own decisions, they will feel secure and confident in executing your plan (and will likely excel) if you are willing to take ultimate responsibility.

For two conflicting looks at how President Barack Obama handles responsibility, see “Obama spokesman: Of course he’s ultimately responsible for security in Benghazi,” at, and “A Pass-the-Buck Presidency,” by John Bolton of the Daily Beast on

[i] Goodwin, Doris Kearns (2005-10-25). Team of Rivals (p. 344-345). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Ibid   (p. 345)


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