The buck stops with all of us

  • Published
  • By Col. Chris Crawford
  • 21st Space Wing commander
A sign on President Harry Truman's desk read "The Buck Stops Here." That sign sat there for most of his administration, and it reminded him every day that he had to take action and accept ultimate responsibility for those actions. As the president, he knew he had to make tough decisions, and he never "passed the buck" of accountability to anyone else. He recognized the criticality of taking ownership and fully internalized the idea.

The phrase "pass the buck" originated in games of poker on the American frontier. The dealer's marker (often a knife with a buckhorn handle) could be passed to the next player if the person up to deal didn't want the responsibility. President Truman's take was that, as the president and commander in chief, he was obligated to take on the tough jobs and lead. As leaders in the U.S. Air Force - whether we are leading a shop, section, flight or wing - we have the same obligation. When it is our turn to deal with a responsibility, we need to see it through to completion - even if it's not exactly what we expected to be doing. This principle is even applicable beyond the Air Force, covering the full spectrum of occupations.

Think about the last time you went out to a restaurant. What if you asked the waiter for a Coke, but he told you "sorry, this isn't my section" or "I'll get someone who can help you - I'm just the manager." Those may sound like plausible responses, and the waiter may not even think he's doing anything wrong, but he is really just passing the buck. Neither of those answers would make a thirsty customer very happy, either. A better answer would have been "Sure, would you like diet or regular?"

When I last met with the wing's company grade officers, I told them a key to success: Do what the boss asks. This was also the theme in my March commander's commentary. A big part of being able to do what the boss asks is to take ownership of responsibilities as they present themselves and get them done. A poor leader will explain how a task is not their job and try to pass that buck on to someone else. A good leader, on the other hand, will shoulder the task and ensure it is completed.

This means, of course, doing the job thoroughly and well. The waiter described above could have taken the drink order right on the spot, but it means nothing (except for maybe a decreased tip) if he fails to deliver the drink, brings the wrong drink, or brings one that's "close enough." I would imagine that "Sorry, we were out of Diet Coke so I got you a Sprite" wouldn't go over very well with most patrons.

Last fall I distributed a memo, dating from the typewriter era, describing the importance of completed and thorough staff work. It talked about completed projects as something you could put your name (or your boss' name) on and have no concerns about its accuracy or unaddressed details. At its core, that memo was all about personal accountability. Unfortunately, that type of accountability is not as prevalent as it could be.

While accountability is applicable for everyone, attention to detail and accuracy takes on a special importance in the military. In our line of work, national security is on the line. The difference between two types of soda in a restaurant is minor, but if the waiter's attitude is transferred to an acquisition program, mission execution, or mission support, the results are magnified and could be devastating.

If you kick out a quick solution just to move on to the next task, or do just enough work to get the project on to the next person in line, the buck didn't stop with you. You may have taken on the task, but you did not see it to completion and you did not set up your comrades for success. While it's true that perfect is the enemy of good, there is a distinct difference between just enough and good.

A good leader will encourage their folks to take the high road and find a way to get a Diet Coke - and they will demonstrate the same quality themselves. They will not settle for "just enough." A good leader will also take full responsibility for whatever product is presented.

The waiter would be a poor leader if he equivocated on his solution, or if he made excuses as to why there was no Diet Coke. I'm sure few would be surprised to hear the waiter say, "Yeah, there's no Diet Coke because the owner didn't place the order for more last week" or "the kitchen staff sent me out here with this Sprite." That doesn't mean it's the right answer, though. The waiter in this example is at least partially culpable, and could probably have done something to help get more Diet Coke ordered, but he is clearly passing the responsibility back on others. This kind of buck passing does nothing to solve the problem, and for Airmen it does nothing to move the mission forward.

If Harry Truman was a waiter in that restaurant, he would have taken that order for a Diet Coke. If the restaurant was out of Diet Coke, he would have owned that buck and taken responsibility for the shortage. ...and in order to complete the task, he would have walked next door to the grocer, bought a Diet Coke, and brought it back to the restaurant for his customer. He would have lived-up to the sign on his desk, just as a good Air Force leader does today.