President Harry Truman famously kept a sign on his Oval Office desk that read, “The Buck Stops Here.” People loved it. Truman followed Franklin Roosevelt who had been in ill health for quite some time before he died. The change to a higher energy leadership was refreshing.
Also, during World War II Washington, DC, had exploded in size and sometimes without clear lines of responsibility for getting results from the burgeoning bureaucracy necessary to win the war. So the sign and the sentiment helped make Truman one of our most popular presidents. He was going to take the nation’s business in hand.
Now, I adore Harry Truman. I chose him as the subject for my senior project in undergraduate school. Yet I will tell you frankly, I don’t want you to put a sign like his on your desk. Nor do I want you to think this philosophy defines great leadership.
There is a kind of leader I call the “multi-leader.” He or she is multi-gifted, multi-talented, a multi-tasker, and they usually have the energy of “multi-people.” I made that last term up too! This kind of leader is usually the happiest when they are the center of activity. They love it when people come to them for answers. Often, when someone seeks them out for a solution, that leader’s hyper manner lands them right in the middle of everything. I’ve seen leaders like this end up driving the truck, working the assembly line, or meeting with the smallest of clients.
They can’t help themselves. They are fixers. They are doers. They love for the buck to stop with them. It defines their leadership.
This doesn’t define great leadership, though. You see, I don’t want the buck stopping with me. I want the buck stopping several steps from me. I see my task as defining direction, crafting a battleplan, and coaching people at the top level to lead others in that plan. In fact, I’m happy for very few decisions to stop with me. I want others to make the daily decisions while I focus on the macro decisions. Then, I want to craft corporate culture and coach my team. That’s it. If the buck stops with me, the whole company is deformed. And, by the way, I’m competing with my own leaders.
Of course, this means I have to be willing for mistakes to be made. I have to be willing for something to suffer short-term while I coach people for long-term success. I also want my team members to own what they do, to feel like it is their baby. They just have to produce results. This was Ronald Reagan’s philosophy. Get good people. Give them authority. Set clear vision. Keep your team accountable but let them run the shop. Then celebrate victories big. This is my philosophy and this is frankly what works.
I want you to take a good look at your leadership style. If you are a multi-leader, then you are hindering the growth of your team and deforming your organization. This may be why your firm is crashing in on you. Burn your “The Buck Stops Here” sign. Make changes. Then turn toward the Reagan model. You should be setting vision, defining a battleplan, and coaching your senior leaders—your generals—to get the job done.