06 February 2023

tl;dr Managers and leaders are often told contradictory things when discussing how to interact with their teams, and those new to the role often mistake collaboration for abdication of authority.

Before we dive too deep, let me make one note about glossary here: Leaders are those who are in a position of informal authority, whereas managers are those in a position of formal authority. In other words, a leader might recommend somebody be promoted, or fired, but only a manager can actually provide the promotion or start the termination. The reason for the difference is clear--where leaders may have some kind of popular or moral position, managers have accountability to their teams. A leader might not get promoted when the people who follow them aren't successful, but a manager can (and does) get fired.

(If you think of the term "manager" as a perjorative and/or insult, implying that managers are just shufflers of paper--figuratively or literally--then we have strongly different definitions.)

Team Interaction

As mentioned earlier, new managers/leaders are often given conflicting information regarding what the role of management/leadership is like. Perhaps most famous (and most widely misunderstood) of those aphorisms is Harry Truman's "The Buck Stops Here". It's often taken to imply that Truman was the one responsible for making all the decisions, referencing a line from one of his speeches: "The President--whoever he is--has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job." In truth, it actually meant that he held himself responsible for those things which happened on his watch, as evidenced by another speech: "You know, it's easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done, after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you -- and on my desk I have a motto which says The Buck Stops Here' -- the decision has to be made."

What Truman understood, as most successful Presidents have also figured out, is that while the President will receive lots of insight and advice from a whole army of people much smarter than he (or she, in the future) will ever be in particular subjects, the President is ultimately the one that must "own" the decision. That doesn't mean he is responsible for coming up with all of the details of the plan; far from it.

Usually, during the "normal" course of events, analysts within the various Departments of the United States government will write "position papers", describing the benefits and drawbacks of a particular proposal. Analysts are constantly at work writing these papers for a variety of positions, some real and some hypothetical. (Military planners do the same, often preparing for situations that may seem nonsensical in the moment--how might the US Army invade a friendly nation?--but then become useful when the context of the situation changes--such as when the US invaded Panama during Manuel Noriega's rule.) When the President needs to make a policy decision around a particular issue, position papers are requested or retrieved, and the authors are sometimes asked to present their paper to the President's staff or to him directly. The staff can debate, ask questions, float ideas, and do all the things that we've come to expect of any sort of conference meeting, but in the end, there's only one voice that truly matters: the President's.

The President of the United States makes the decision on the policy, and relies on his staff to carry out the execution of that policy. If that policy accomplishes its aims, the President reaps the reward of having made the "right" call. (Except from the opposing party, who will take great pains to point out all the ways that call led to undesirable consequences.) If that policy has negative side effects, or the policy fails to accomplish what it intended to do, the President has to defend that decision in the press to his constituents (and to the opposing party again).

He "owns" the decision: He makes it, and then owns the ramifications of that choice.


This notion of "ownership" is frequently the hot potato of corporate communication. It is, I believe, the main reason that so many people want nothing to do with leadership or management roles--it's one thing to be responsible for your own work; to then be asked to make decisions for and about others, that scares people. When you couple that fear with the accountability that comes with making a decision, that drives many away entirely.

You can be many things in Western corporate life, but one thing you cannot be is wrong.

As a manager on a team, you own the decisions made by that team. The buck stops with you: whatever happens with this decision, you are the one that must answer for the consequences. If the decision leads to positive outcomes, you get to claim the credit. If the decision leads to negative outcomes, you must accept the blame.

Ownership is not unilateralism

Because of this, many new managers often feel that they are the unilateral decision-maker. Any decision must be their decision. Because, after all, if the team's performance reflects directly on the manager, and the team's performance is rooted in decisions the team makes, then the manager has to be involved in every decision.

Thus does the new manager descend directly into micromanagement, and finds simultaneously that (a) they have zero time to do anything but make decisions, and (b) their team feels entirely powerless and meaningless. Employee surveys and feedback tell the new (micro)manager that their team lacks innovation or enthusiasm--which only reinforces to the micromanager that the team needs to make less decisions, because if they're not doing well, how can they be trusted to make good decisions? The spiral continues until the team breaks somehow--either team members are fired, or quit, or the team is broken up, or the manager is fired or (worse) promoted.

Not falling into this trap is the first bit of advice given to new managers: "Collaborate. Listen to your team. Hold meetings and be the last person to speak your opinion." And so on.

Death by Consensus

This then leads to the second pitfall of new managers: no decision can be reached until the team collectively agrees to it. Meetings among the team take on the nature of an academic board of discussion, in which each of the professors who are experts in their own field weigh in with their opinions and analysis, with the intent that logic and deductive reasoning and debate will reveal the truth in time. "If everybody is convinced," the theory goes, "then collectively the right decision has been reached".

This "management-by-consensus" says, in essence, that it's not the manager that makes the call, it's the team that makes the call. After all, if the decision goes well, that means that the team collectively gets to share in the credit, so what's not to love, right? (And, less-often mentioned, if there's blame to get apportioned, well, the team as a whole shares the blame, so unless the company is going to fire the entire team over it....)

Management-by-consensus is essentially an abdication of authority.

Consider an average scenario: An issue has come up, and a decision needs to be made. The consensus manager, seeing this, calls the team together and presents the issue. The team debates for a while, and after some period of time, one of several outcomes emerge:

If you're starting to notice a pattern here, that the "consensus achieved" isn't always a positive thing, you're picking up on the underlying problem of management-by-consensus: consensus often undermines the very confidence in the decision that it was intended to create. The team may have agreed, but individuals are often frustrated, hurt, or even angry at the decision (or the lack thereof).

What's worse is that the manager, by having abandoned their ownership of the decision, has lost the respect and confidence of the team--that consensus manager is now, at best, an arbitrator, and at worst, a spectator.

The Buck Stops Here

As a manager of a team, you are (literally) paid to own decisions. There will come times when the team will need a decision to be made, but cannot agree on what that decision needs to be. Some may have an agenda they wish to see fulfilled, some may genuinely believe they have a better perspective; their intentions do not matter. What matters is that they disagree on what the decision will be. In those moments, the decision is--and must be--yours to make. The buck stops with you, and that means that at times, you will need to make decisions that may be unpopular with some of your team. You don't do it capriciously or maliciously, and you certainly don't do so in such a way that somebody takes it personally, but you have to do it.

You are the manager. It's your decision to own.

Two interesting stories are told about this phenomenon:

"When Dwight Eisenhower served as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War II, he faced the dilemma of sending many to their deaths with the invasion of Normandy. Balancing many variables, the window to go or wait came down to a poor set of choices. On the day planned for the invasion, the weather was uncooperative and the fog and cloud cover would keep Allied bombers from supporting the invasion force. Eisenhower’s team was split over the decision to invade or postpone. As was observed and reported, Eisenhower stared out the window into the fog for a long moment, turned around and said, 'We’ll go.'"

Eisenhower had, in the room, some of the best, sharpest military minds, and the combined might of millions of men and women, the political will of two empires (one rising, one fading), and all the best minds that could be brought to the problem. They poured millions of man-hours into the analysis of the problem. In the end, though, it came down to weather: Would the weather hold up well enough to permit the landings? Some said yes, some said no, and either could've been right. In the end, Eisenhower didn't call for a vote, nor did he continue to wrangle his staff to reach a consensus. The decision was his, and he made it.

What history often doesn't tell, when telling that story, is that Eisenhower then retreated to his office to write two letters/speeches: one that praised the troops for the successful landings, and one taking full responsibility for the failure of the Allied forces to land on the Normandy coast. Eisenhower knew, full well, that credit for the success lay with the troops who stormed the shores and manned the ships and flew the aircraft. Failure, however, was his, because his was the decision that sent them.

You could argue that Eisenhower was a brilliant strategist who had a feel for the vibe of the campaign. You could argue that he had a greater sense of his troops' capabilities. You could even argue that it was a coin flip result, and he got lucky at the right time. It doesn't really matter for our purposes why the D-Day landings were successful--all that mattered is that Eisenhower knew the decision--and the accountability for that decision--lay with him, and him alone.

The buck stopped with him.

Another, similar, story carries within it a slightly different lesson:

"The Illinois football team was on the brink of beating number one ranked Ohio State. It was 4th and 1 in Illinois territory with over 8 minutes to go and the Illinois coach decided to punt. Ohio State called a timeout and during this interval, the Illinois QB convinced the coach that they had not worked hard, practiced early and long for months (and for much of their lives) to give the ball back to Ohio State and lose with a potential drive. The coach reversed his decision, Illinois went on to make the first down, and ultimately eat up the clock en-route to the major upset of the year."

Notice here the coach (the manager) made a decision, but was convinced by others on his staff to make a different decision. As the manager, if you have hired your team well, you are not the smartest person in the room. Other people will have different perspective. They will have vision or skills or connections that you lack. They may well (and most likely will) be the ones who are executing on the decision, and if they believe they can pull it off, they might well be able to.

Had Illinois failed to convert, it's reasonable to assume that many would have held the coach responsible for that decision--even though his quarterback, the one executing the play (along with 10 other players) were the ones actually "doing the work". The manager (coach) reversed his decision, and the team responded with a win. (Literally.)

As a manager, being open to your team's contrarian positions and thoughts help you shape your own decision-making. Creating a psychologically safe environment in which your team can bring their dissenting opinions to you--and be heard--is a major part of the manager's job. You want, and need, the experts on your staff to bring their expertise and provide you with as much relevant information and evidence as they can. The team may even agree on what the decision should be. But, ultimately, the decision(s) rest with you. The accountability of those decisions are held up to you.

If you are the manager, you own the decision.

Crisis scenarios

It is important to note that there are times when extenuating circumstances require that the traditional pace and process of decision-making be cast aside for something more streamlined. These are often (if not always) crisis situations, and during those times your management and leadership skills are put to the test.

During those situations, many of the normal rules of management have to be set aside. During a crisis, your team will be looking to you not just for decisions, but much, much more. They will be unsure of themselves, particularly if this is their first crisis, and many will be afraid to make a decision because they believe it's better to do nothing than do something wrong (which often is the exact opposite of the truth). During those times, you'll need to find your "command voice"--that tone of voice that makes it clear that you are in control here. No yelling (unless it's necessary to be heard), no blaming, and no distraction.

The practical details of how to handle a crisis vary from situation to situation, but in general, think about the following:

Crisis situations will often showcase your leadership skills, but in the end the success or failure of the crisis situation's resolution will hinge on your management skills, the formal authority vested in you, and your willingness to own all the decisions made.


When taking on a management role you are accepting the accountability of what happens on your team's watch. The team will be filled with experts and expertise, but ultimately the decisions that the team needs made will be ones that you will have to make. Sometimes the team will come together collectively to figure out the best decision to make, but ultimately, it's not theirs to make or own--it's yours.

Keep in mind, by the way, that there are a few situations where you may deliberately play "the Management Card", and veto or overrule your team's consensus because you believe you have a different answer than what they can see. This is certainly your prerogative as the manager, but doing so spends a great deal of your management credibility, and had better pay off in ways that build (and enhance) that credibility--in other words, you better be damn right if you do this. (And if you end up being wrong, you'd better be the first person to admit it!)

Leadership might mean helping the team come to the best decision, but management means owning them.

Tags: management  

Last modified 06 February 2023