Where does the buck stop?

A few months after I had joined a marketing company, the Export Director informed me that the company had decided to participate in a month-long trade show in a foreign country. It was proposed that our stall, in which we would display 2 machines, would be manned by a Senior Service Engineer and me. The Senior Service Engineer would look after the installation and operation of the displayed machines, while I would handle all business enquiries.

When I pointed out that I had absolutely no exposure to International Trade, he assured me that our company’s Agent in that country, who was extremely well-versed in International Trade, would guide me in all commercial/legal matters.

The trade show went off very well. Many visitors showed interest in our machines. One customer decided to buy both the displayed machines. Our Agent prepared the contract documents, which were signed on the last day of the trade show by the customer and by me on behalf of my company. The documents contained some clauses that I thought should not be there. When I asked our Agent about these clauses, he confirmed that these were standard clauses in any such contract. Considering the Export Director’s assurance, I signed the documents. The machines were handed over to the customer.

A few days after we returned to India, it turned out that our company could not claim the payment for the two machines because the contract documents were not suitable for machines that had been displayed in a trade show. (The contract documents would have been perfect if the machines had been shipped directly to the customer.) Our Managing Director was totally upset, but he said our first priority should be to recover the payment, adding ominously that a ‘post-mortem’ on the matter could be carried out after we recovered the payment.

We engaged the services of an Export Consultant, who managed to resolve the matter. Our company received the payment three months later. As expected, our MD summoned the Export Director and me to his room the moment he was informed that the payment had been received.

As soon as we were seated, our MD glared at me and asked, “How could you have signed a contract that contained such glaringly wrong clauses?” Before I could say anything, the Export Director said, “Sir, it was not his mistake. He only followed my instructions. Before taking up this assignment, he had reminded me that he had absolutely no exposure to International Trade. I had instructed him to follow our Agent’s guidance in all commercial/legal matters. When I told you this, you had expressed your reservations, but I had assured you that I have complete confidence in our Agent. It is my mistake.”

Our MD was absorbed in silent thought for about 30 seconds, during which I fervently hoped he wouldn’t take any drastic action against the Export Director. I was stunned when he looked at the Export Director and said, “It’s not your mistake. I am to blame. It was wrong on my part to have accepted your assurance.” He turned to me and said, “I am sorry that we sent you on this assignment without training you properly.”

It would have been very easy for the Export Director to blame me for the mishap, but he chose to accept responsibility.

It would have been even easier for our MD to blame the Export Director and/or me for the mishap, but he chose to accept responsibility.

Both the Export Director and our MD had displayed the essential leadership quality of readily accepting the ultimate responsibility for a decision that has gone wrong. In other words, “The buck stops here!”

How many leaders (in business, politics or any other activity) readily accept the ultimate responsibility for decisions that have gone wrong?

How many leaders ‘pass the buck’?

What do we do when our decisions go wrong? Do we readily accept responsibility, or do we ‘pass the buck’?