Throwing Subordinates Under the Bus: Professional in politics but amateur in leadership

By Tom Davidson

It’s only the latest example of a senior leader publicly throwing his subordinates under the bus, but it’s a big one, with a lesson for everyday leaders as well.

To “throw someone under the bus” is a contemporary version of the expression, to “throw someone to the wolves.” In both cases, the one doing the throwing theoretically benefits from sacrificing someone less deserving or more vulnerable, so that the one being thrown suffers the consequences instead of the one doing the throwing.

In a lengthy interview with “60 Minutes,” which aired on Sunday, President Obama threw his intelligence community under the bus for two factors, one was underestimating the threat posed by ISIS and the other was overestimating the ability of the Iraqi Army to fight the terrorists. Specifically, the President said about his Director of National Intelligence, “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.” (Note the use of “I” and “they” in his answer.)

While this might be professional in politics, it’s amateur in leadership. Here’s why. By doing so, you…

    • Cultivate a culture of blame, not one of admitting mistakes and learning.
    • Abdicate your role as leader of your team or organization.
    • Erode the trust of your subordinates who learn that you’ll throw them next.
    • Degrade the likelihood of reasonable risk-taking and independent decision-making in the ranks.
    • Grow mistrust and skepticism among your stakeholders outside of your team.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra made the corporation fully responsible for ignition failures in the Chevrolet Cobalt, which led to injuries and death, saying in June that the company would take full responsibility for the faulty ignition scandal and compensate victims of accidents tied to the defects. “The Cobalt saga was riddled with failure,” she said the time. “We misdiagnosed the problem from the very beginning…. We have to own this problem.” (Note the use of “we” in her statements.)

While 15 officials, including executives, were fired for their “incorrect or irresponsible actions,” they were not named, and Barra shared the blame using the “royal we” in the process. It was not just those 15 officials who were responsible; the entire corporation owned the problem, including Barra.

If Clapper was responsible for an arguably even more deadly error in judgment in the Middle East – and not Obama – then why is the director still in charge of National Intelligence? If Clapper and the intelligence community were responsible for such a gross oversight, then why are people not being held accountable as they were in the case with GM? Where there is a lack of responsibility, there is a lack of leadership.

As an everyday leader, you’re in a position of responsibility, which means accepting responsibility for what happens under your leadership.

  • When someone is injured on your watch, it’s your responsibility, too, for not creating a culture of safety and not having the safeguards in place.
  • When someone steals on your watch, it’s your responsibility, too, for not having the systems and security in place to prevent it.
  • When someone fails on your watch, it’s your responsibility, too, for not being sufficiently in touch, providing the needed guidance, or doing your part to prevent the problem.

President Harry S. Truman classically captured this idea when he placed a sign on his desk that read, The Buck Stops Here. While throwing people under the bus looks good on paper, it reeks in the practice of leadership.

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