leadership lane-assist

Here’s another Leadership Lane Assist prompt that emerges from my reflection on a 4-decade career as a leader in Christian higher education:

Look for solutions, not blame.


Some years ago, I presided over a spectacular and humiliating failure. Oh, I have failed many times as a leader in an educational institution, but this one was a doozy.

Outdoor ceremonyOver the years, graduating classes at our institution had from time to time expressed the wish that commencement exercises could be held outdoors. In light of the added expense for rental seating, staging, a/v, etc., along with the vagaries of spring weather, we resisted — even though the capacity limitations of our chapel had forced us to set severe limits on attendance allocations for family and friends of graduates.

One year, the senior class was particularly vocal and persistent and, given the anticipated indoor seating capacity crisis caused by a larger-than-normal graduating class, I relented and authorized our team to make plans for an outdoor ceremony. I made it clear we needed to have a contingency plan and repeatedly asked for assurances that such a plan was in place. My failure was in neglecting to insist on knowing details of that contingency plan.


Commencement morning arrived in the most ominous fashion imaginable. Long before smartphone weather radar apps would have made it possible to know things more precisely, it was nevertheless pretty clear that a rare morning thunderstorm was definitely a possibility.

Confident that contingency plans were in place, I looked at the forbidding horizon about 30 minutes before the scheduled processional, surveyed the nervous audience filing into rented chairs under an open sky, and suggested to my subordinate that it appeared to me it would be prudent to scrap the outdoor ceremony and implement the contingency plan. Imagine my astonishment when she informed me that the contingency plan involved making an irrevocable “go/no-go” decision 3 days in advance of the event!

Lightning strikeMeanwhile, the mood of our guests rapidly shifted from tranquil, to uneasy, to terrified. About that time the thunderclouds suddenly burst and an epic downpour ensued. Those who could sprint to the nearest building 200 meters away did so; the old and infirm were less fortunate. No matter, the downpour was so gushing that even world class sprinters would have been drenched.

The event’s lack of contingency planning and execution was a debacle, an embarrassment to me and my staff, our administration, trustees, faculty, alumni, graduates and every other stakeholder you could think of. Most of our guests were good-natured and forgiving, but some were visibly furious and fuming. I could barely look our guest commencement speaker in the eye. What a fiasco! Commencement did occur, but to say the enthusiasm was dampened is no mere pun.

The Aftermath

The occasion’s aftermath gave rise to two vastly diverging leadership styles. Some saw scapegoats, some sought solutions. The person primarily responsible to oversee commencement met with me at the end of day anticipating summary dismissal. Without attempting to minimize the magnitude of the calamity, I assured that person I held her responsible but that I shared responsibility for the misunderstanding of what would have been an acceptable “contingency plan” and that this failure, although admittedly costly and embarrassing, was an exception to her consistent pattern of performance excellence. We then discussed what we learned from the failure, how we could better ensure mutually accurate future communication, and by what means we might seek to acknowledge our failure and make amends to graduates and others involved in that fateful fiasco.

Other leaders took a different tack. They demanded to know who was responsible, who was going to be punished. Something went wrong — big time. Someone had to pay — big time. After all, effective organizations are ones that hold people accountable, right?

The presumption was that I should expose the culprit(s) – unless, of course, I was prepared to accept full responsibility and the accompanying severe consequences, responsibility it was clear they had no intention of partaking with me. You can recite the “I told you so” script: “I knew all along it was a bad and wasteful idea to plan an outdoor commencement.”


Wait. Accountability is not synonymous with blaming. Blaming looks for a scapegoat. Responsibility and consequences for failure are shoved downward to the lowest possible subordinate level. Accountability works in the opposite direction — upward.

The higher your leadership position and status, the higher your level of accountability. As a senior leader, you may not be to blame, but you are responsible.

I recently watched the much-ballyhooed Emmy Award winning miniseries Chernobyl. It dramatizes the April 1986 explosion of a Soviet nuclear reactor that precipitated history’s widely-purported worst man-made disaster. If Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the Soviet Union from 1985 until its 1991 collapse is to be believed, Chernobyl was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Like most television, Chernobyl relies more on the medium’s tools of characterization, story and affect than factual accuracy. Be that as it may, the series, as well as a number of significant books and other popular and scholarly publications, are in agreement on this point: scapegoating was endemic to the Soviet system. The depiction of scapegoating in the Chernobyl miniseries would be comical if it were not so tragic.

Unfortunately, I have observed lower grade scapegoating cultures infect more than one Christian organization. The more leaders personally model or institutionally tolerate the blame game, the more the organizations they lead are likely sowing seeds of devastation and ultimate collapse.

Don’t make the mistake of confusing the downdraft of blame with the upward lift of accountability. A respected ABHE Board member recently passed along this succinct nugget of leadership wisdom: the best leaders consistently act and react as if they have nothing to hide, nothing to fear, nothing to lose. Lord, help me to be that leader.

Look for solutions, not blame.


If you’ve missed any posts from my Leadership Lane-Assist series, you can find them in our 4ThoughtLeaders blog pages.  Or, if you’re just tuning in, you may want to start from the beginning of the series with my Leadership Lane-Assist introductory post.

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