Who holds the ultimate responsibility in an organisation?

Well the power in an organisation is at the top, it rests with whoever is ultimately in charge of the organisation. It may be delegated, but delegated power does not mean that it has been abdicated. The American President Harry Truman maintained a sign on his desk which famously said “The Buck Stops Here”.

It meant that regardless of whether the action was authorised, known about or should have been recognised, Truman took 100% of the responsibility; and he accepted that this was so because he was the head of the organisation.

Power consists of authority and responsibility; and there are many leaders in business and other organisations today that willingly use the first, but fail to deliver on the second. Responsibility is conscious and voluntary and it can be accepted or evaded; and we demean our position if we evade our responsibilities by blaming our subordinates. Such behaviour shows weakness and a misunderstanding of the nature of power.

If authority and responsibility are interconnected, then a weakness in any organisation must be to hold the responsibility but lack the authority to achieve the goals. But I believe that there is a worse combination, when the person who holds the power claims to hold the authority but refuses to accept the responsibility.

Any executive who blames his subordinates is actually admitting that “I am not a leader

If we are to delegate responsibility then we must also delegate authority; and that’s where it becomes difficult. The subordinate cannot have the same responsibility as the CEO unless they also hold the same authority. Authority is the ability to make particular decisions without having to ask someone else’s permission; While responsibility is then being held to account for what was decided.

It is impossible to allow everyone in the organisation the same degree of authority; it becomes a collective without leadership. So we are back with the question of who holds the authority in an organisation? If some authority has to be withheld, then it must follow that the responsibility which goes with that authority must also be withheld. And for the Leader to delegate responsibility without the similar authority places an unfair stress on the person who is eventually to be held accountable.

This rejection of the union of authority and responsibility is one of the most common mistakes of companies and organisations today.

In the words of Jonathan Wallace, in his article on Leadership published in ‘The Ethical Spectacle’ 1998

“While responsibility unhinged from authority creates hapless victims, authority without responsibility creates monsters. People who can make decisions for which they can never be held accountable have the potential to be incredibly destructive of the organization and of the lives of its members.”

So – where does your buck stop?

Michele @ Trischel

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