One of my first jobs out of college was in a small company where I essentially owned a customer service process. I worked with customers who’d been in a crisis of some kind, so I had to quickly and effectively send word to other stakeholders and kick off a series of events in order to make sure that the customer was cared for.
If I didn’t do my job well, or if someone else dropped a piece of the puzzle, it could come back to bite the company – hard. Like, lawsuit hard.
Since I was one of the only people who knew the process in and out and could manage the database we used to keep track, I interfaced a lot with organizational leaders.
One of them, who we’ll call Gary, was responsible for working with the client much later down the road, when the stakes could be a lot higher. Sometimes Gary would get wind of urgent information that he’d need to pass along to me so that I could kick off the customer’s process from the beginning.
From time to time with more minor issues, Gary would forget to pass that information along until it was a couple of days or even weeks after the incident had occurred. With little issues, this wasn’t a big deal, and since he was about 40 years older than me and earned about 40x as much as I did, I trusted that he knew what he was doing.
I’d watch him talking to the other leaders in the organization and lie about having done something that he hadn’t. Right after talking to them, he’d run over to me and give me the information he’d just claimed was already in process.
It was kind of astounding to see someone in a position of power and prestige so afraid to just say “No, I didn’t get that done yet, but I will.”
But what did I know? I was just a little customer service pawn, right?
So I didn’t mention anything to anyone, even though I knew Gary’s track record was dicey.
Well, one day some other higher-ups in the company came to me panicked because one of their biggest clients, whom Gary managed, had claimed that we didn’t do our job correctly, which could have meant that I didn’t do my job correctly.
Everyone was shuffling through papers, emails, and two blaring questions kept running through my mind: did Gary tell me about this issue, and did I drop the ball?
If I was responsible for such a big kerfuffle, I could have justifiably been fired. It was one of those times when all of your senses are heightened, like you’re a prey animal who knows it’s about to get shot.
I looked and looked through all of my emails, files, the database I managed – everything. I couldn’t find any evidence that Gary ever told me about this issue, which meant there would have been no reason for me to kick off the customer’s process.
As I was going through everything and finding no evidence that I had dropped the ball, I felt wave after wave of relief: it wasn’t me. Something else happened. I was safe.
Of course, Gary was nowhere to be found in all of this. Late that afternoon, he finally showed up in the office, and I saw him talking to those higher-ups that came to me earlier. The dust seemed to settle, and a colleague told me that everything turned out fine – the client would be taken care of, and they weren’t leaving the business.
I left that day totally drained after riding the emotional roller coaster and came in the next morning a little battle weary, but feeling like I trusted myself and my process more than ever.
Then I got called into the CEO’s office.
Mr. CEO proceeded to firmly let me know how important it is that I keep track of and process the information that Gary gives to me, especially for large clients like the one in crisis yesterday.
Gary. He passed that big, bloody, fucked up buck right into my lap. He blamed me for the mess that I knew he’d caused.
I had no idea what to say, so I didn’t resist or tell the CEO that Gary had never given me a shred of information about this and that it wasn’t my fault. I just nodded my head and apologized. Luckily, I wasn’t fired, but by then, my trust in Gary was completely eroded.
He went on as if nothing had happened – no mention of the crisis, no “hey, sorry I threw your ass under the bus.”
I played along but kept my distance from him, always keeping extra good notes and covering my bases.
While Gary and I shared interactions over the next several years, this is what I will always remember about him: instead of taking accountability like a good leader would, he let someone much more junior than him take the fault and be blamed for a mistake that he made.
Watching him taught me that good leadership isn’t a quality that you automatically have once you’re older and in a position of power.
Each of us leaves a wake in our presence – impressions, energy, a sense of who we are that’s felt by those who have been around us.
I don’t want to leave behind a wake like the one that Gary left behind him. I don’t want to be in my sixties blaming my assistants or employees so that I can shirk away from the shame of having made a mistake.
And I bet you don’t, either.
It’s easy to pass the buck in an organization – responsibility gets tossed around like a hot potato, no one really wanting to hold onto it and claim that it’s theirs.
The leaders who have left a positive wake behind them are the people who aren’t afraid to be held accountable and who are secure enough to share their humanity with us.
We can all be that leader – that person who leaves a positive wake behind them. All we have to do is start taking responsibility for ourselves.
We have to stop blaming everything and everyone else for the lives we live, the choices we make, and for the mistakes we’ve made.
When will you stop passing the buck? When will you hold it and make it yours?
The more you do, the more integrity you’ll have, and having integrity gives you the freedom and fullness to live a life that is totally yours and is a blessing to those who will feel your wake after you’ve gone.