by Steve Adubato, PhD
There have been countless books written about essential leadership traits or characteristics, but sometimes being a great leader involves taking the blame for the actions of someone on your team. It's about sacrificing your personal and professional success for something larger. A lot of people talk the talk, but in a moment of truth Lt. Colonel Hank Keirsey (Ret.) walked the walk.
A little background. In 1999 a West Point Aviation captain by the name of Dan Dent created a PowerPoint slide involving inappropriate homosexual humor. The slide, which was meant as an inside joke, was accidentally circulated. The incident was immediately brought to the military powers that be. Dan Dent, who had two small children and another on the way, was in deep trouble. Lt. Colonel Keirsey then decided to go to his superiors and take full responsibility for the incident as Dent's commanding officer.
Keirsey says he did it because it was the right thing to do. He also felt that as a military veteran he would probably get a slap on the wrist, as opposed to Captain Dent who would face much worse. Except that's not what happened. Despite 24 years of dedicated military service and an exemplary record of training thousands of young cadets in leadership at West Point, Lt. Colonel Hank Keirsey was thrown out--discharged--with the following explanation; "LTC Keirsey…has created and fostered an environment in Military Training that is antithetical to Army values, professional standards, and the development of cadets into officers of character." The West Point community was stunned.
Recently I asked Keirsey about the incident, which is profiled in the book, "Absolutely American" written by David Lipsky. Says Keirsey, "There are two kinds of leaders. There's the guy that puts his arms around his subordinates and creates an environment and climate of trust that a guy can operate in. This leader stands behind his people in times of crisis and stress. Then, there is the other guy that is immediately looking for a scapegoat when something happens. This guy snuffs the life out of an organization."
In "Absolutely American," Hank Keirsey is seen as an exceptional leader, a role model for those who aspire to have others follow them when things really get rough. Hank Keirsey took a bullet for one of his team members, the kind of bullet that ended a distinguished career in an instant. Dan Dent may have made the mistake, but Keirsey held himself personally responsible for this captain's actions.
Consider how rare this kind of leadership is in business. How many high-profile figures are quick to blame subordinates for things that go wrong? Scapegoating has become an art form in today's workplace.
Former President Harry Truman once said, "The buck stops here." Yet, it often seems that a more appropriate adage for certain professionals today might be; "The buck stops with anyone but me." When I asked Hank Keirsey about this phenomenon, he offered this perspective; "I think we have a weakness with people in corporate America fully understanding what leadership is. Most of our corporate executives understand management and checking on things. They understand there are systems of managing information and projects and setting suspensions and dates. However, when it comes to walking into a room and inspiring a number of people saying, 'I'm not here for the pay or the benefits. I am here because I don't want to disappoint my team.' This is something we need to develop in our leaders today."
This column often talks about the importance of communication and the power of the spoken word when it comes to leadership. But in this instance, as Hank Keirsey clearly demonstrated, sometimes actions do speak a lot louder than words.