(Note: This is the sixth and final article in a series on the topic Building Trust to Stop Conflict Before It Starts.)
Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General of Civil War fame, rode among his troops after their final and horrifically disastrous charge at Gettysburg and said, according to some accounts, concerning the fiasco, “It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.”
I find this to be a story of exemplary leadership because great leaders take responsibility when things go wrong.
What do you think of the following reflections on this account of Lee’s actions?
We might consider that he didn’t really need to apologize. We can assume he used the best information available to him at the time. He doubtless determined what he believed to be the logical course of action and decisively took it. Lee did nothing wrong.
Lee could have simply defended his decision and blamed his subordinates. In fact, if I understand the story correctly, more than one of his Generals erred or disobeyed orders over the course of the three day conflict and helped seal the fate of the final bloody charge.
Instead, he took full responsibility as the leader. He realized that the decision he made, though it seemed best at the time, did not result in a victory but rather a defeat.
He also recognized that his troops needed him to take responsibility as their leader. They were blaming themselves and felt demoralized and humiliated. Better for him to accept the responsibility and heal their morale as quickly as possible.
Lee genuinely cared about his men and he wasn’t afraid to show it.
Some leaders may be tempted to take the credit when things go well and blame others when things go wrong.
Lee recognized the importance of leaders sharing the credit when things go well, and taking responsibility when things go wrong.
Leaders who take responsibility build trust. People need to know that their leader has their back before they can risk trying new or difficult tasks or demonstrating initiative.
Of course, taking the blame for everything that goes wrong will not be empowering to others, nor helpful. Subordinates need to be challenged in order to grow. However, shifting the blame and throwing others under the bus will create a fearful environment for staff and followers.
How do you keep the balance between challenging others to grow and yet taking responsibility in your ministry?