05/03/2013 09:47 am ET Updated Jul 03, 2013

The Buck Stops Here -- Really?

President Harry S. Truman's desk famously had a sign that said: "The Buck Stops Here."

Less famously, and almost ironically, the sign had been found by Truman's friend in an Oklahoma reformatory. Nonetheless, the phrase's origin actually derived from the expression "passing the buck," meaning passing responsibility on to another -- a frontier poker term in which a marker or counter, typically a knife with a buckhorn handle, indicated whose turn it was to deal. If the player didn't want to, i.e., if he rejected the "responsibility" of dealing, he passed the buck. For Truman, as president, the obligation to "deal" was ultimately his responsibility. Always!

And rightly so. The public expects its chief executive to suffer the political consequences (or fallout), even if fatal to his incumbency, if something dire occurs during his administration. That expectation exists, whether or not he knew of the problem before its exposure by a muckraker or whistleblower, and whether he had the ability to correct it, or head it off. And it typically doesn't matter to the public that "actual" responsibility for the problem shouldn't fairly lie at his doorstep. Nope. His administration. The buck stops with him!

History's judgment will likely always judge presidents, popes and potentates just that way, too. More callously, to be sure, if the leader knew or should reasonably have known, in "real time," the bad things that were occurring while he was in charge. Moreover, society's judgment -- and, more directly, the judgment of the leader's constituency -- will be harsher or, contrarily, more forgiving, depending on how earnestly and robustly the leader responded when he learned of the malfeasance (or misfeasance) which he had the ability to correct, painful as such course correction might be.

Course correction frequently means ordering loyal, seemingly indispensable subordinates to walk the plank, thus allowing the leader to save his own skin or reputation by appearing to get out in front of an emerging scandal. The reality is that even if the subordinate was herself an actual innocent, with no true responsibility for the leader's conduct, the public's typically unreasonable expectation of an imaginary "buck stops here" sign hangs over her desk, too.

For practical reasons, no matter how desperately the ultimate leader is and wants to be a "standup guy," he simply cannot and should not "take the weight" each time something goes afoul. Almost always, a lesser light will have to take that weight. Loyal subordinates recognize and live with that reality, as do effective leaders -- even though the public, oftentimes ginned up by tabloid hyperbole, might not fully understand or appreciate it. Frankly, the public tends to simply exact its pound of flesh once it decides that the penance of the actual perpetrator alone is insufficient.

Truth be told, this specter of assessing blame isn't always fair. Effective leaders often have full plates. Yes, they are burdened with the responsibility of the subordinates they choose or deputize when those "deputies" prove ineffective. But, in that context, what does "responsibility" mean? Do we want leaders busy wading into the weeds, so that the screw-ups of their subordinates actually amount to their own screw-ups? The public doesn't always "get" that a truly effective leader can't possibly micromanage and still have the time and capacity do the overall job required. To require otherwise trivializes the importance of delegation.

An effective president, or even secretary of state, can't possibly know if an outpost diplomat requested greater security for his embassy in a troubled venue -- unless he is specifically told, or happens to know. A pope can't possibly know about a financial scandal in a particular diocese -- unless he is specifically told, or happens to know. A university president can't possibly know that an athletic coach has gone off the rails during scrimmages -- unless he is specifically told, or happens to know. But "happens to know" -- what does (or should) that truly mean?

Although "knowing," whether that knowledge is incidental or by virtue of a protocol of upstream reports, may indeed constitute a basis upon which a leader's responsibility can be founded, pinning meaningful responsibility on a leader shouldn't always be thus predicated.

Leaders should, in fact, be pegged with a level of responsibility not dependent on the serendipity of "happening to learn," as Shakespeare wrote, that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark." At the same time, we need good men and women entering public and eleemosynary service. If we propose to overbearingly hold them to account, when the conduct occurs too far below them in the pecking order or pay grade, we risk making too shallow the pool of those willing to serve, and dilute the quality of those willing to assume the burdensome positions of trust.

We should commend leaders -- President Truman was the icon -- who boldly acknowledge that the buck stops at their desk. Nonetheless, it would be counterproductive in the extreme to insist on "I Am Always Responsible" as the standard by which leaders should be held to account or forced to confront.

Think about it. Would you willingly serve under the rigorous demands of a ground rule that etches a target on your forehead merely because you're effectively the top dog and therefore the buck stops with you, always?