Knowing Where The Buck Stops

February 18, 2021

By Tom Williams

An esteemed school master of mine was the first person to introduce me to the phrase 'The Buck Stops Here'. The phrase is regularly attributed to former US President Harry S.Truman and I've heard it often used by subsequent political figures such as another former US President Lyndon B. Johnson and his British namesake, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The principle behind the phrase is that the successes and failures of a business are ultimately assigned to those who are the figureheads. It is a methodology of creating the assumption of responsibility due to the tone of the culture being set from the top.

But are those who position themselves on high ultimately responsible for all of the behaviours that go on below? Do they have the opportunity to influence, control, drive and enhance the culture within an environment?

In short, yes. And no. A recent publication from the Financial Conduct Authority to the industry states that 'tone from the middle' is more influential and significantly more important than 'tone from the top'. However, businesses appoint boards and directors in order to steer the direction of progress to the desired destination. They are usually the people responsible for coming up with the three to five inspirational words that get painted on the wall of reception to be seen but never acknowledged again.

Successful cultures recognise the need for those key words to have behaviours and expectations attached to them. They understand the need to empower and trust key players within a team to drive that culture forwards, to police it, to enforce the requisite behaviours that will ultimately take the business to the holy land.

Far too regularly we see unbelievably capable (knowledge wise) leaders come into an organisation and struggle with the basic emotional requirements of a group. These leaders usually come with a history of success behind them but for some reason just can't seem to communicate effectively enough to motivate.

The most recent example of this from my background in professional rugby is the rare mid-season departure of Harlequins' Head of Rugby, Paul Gustard. Gustard came to Quins off the back of domestic success with Saracens and International acclaim with England, both as a formidable defence coach. He arrived at the club following a steady period of decline and felt the need to stamp his mark throughout the club.

What followed was a period of mixed results, with notable successes and a frustrating lack of consistency. Coaches and Players were moved on and replaced with shocking speed. The Academy, usually providing the core of the modern day premiership rugby club, was devalued and the team seemed to lose its identity with it.

In stark contrast to the likes of Presidents Truman and Johnson, where the assumption of responsibility was vocalised regularly and effectively, Gustard's post match interviews were an exercise in hubris; admonishing himself from blame and assigning indirectly to either the players or his fellow coaching team.

The parting message from Gustard exemplifies this perfectly, "I wanted to join a group where there was a clear vision, deep level of trust and a dynamic environment, which was driven towards high performance." An interesting barb to throw given that he was given ample time to engage and empower those key cultural drivers and influencers. Even stranger given that as Head of Rugby his role is predominantly based around creating exactly the environment he is so desperate to join.

So where did it go wrong? Let's not look at Gustard and Harlequins specifically. For any new figurehead joining a business there are some crucial questions you have to ask:

  • What is our purpose?
  • Who is going to drive the culture from within?
  • Who is going to stand up and disagree if required?
  • Do I understand the emotional needs of the group?
  • Who do I need to help me?

Where leaders fail is when the don't have the emotional intelligence to understand that the buck stops with them. They are responsible for creating an environment where questioning is acceptable, innovation is encouraged and they are responsible for filling the gaps of their knowledge with people who can support and drive your vision forwards.

In summary, it takes a very diverse skill set in order to be a great leader. It takes time and humility. A great salesman doesn't necessarily make a great manager after all. We often hear stories about incredible mavericks and creative geniuses. What we hear less often is how the direct superiors nurtured them, drove them, constrained them where required. I wish we heard more about how the environments were created where those brilliant people were empowered to make decisions and encouraged to fail fast and learn fast.