Fourth Question Leaders consciously seek to build an organisational culture of leadership responsibility taking rather than one of blame shifting. One of the key tests of the leadership of organisational culture is the level of responsibility taking vs the level of blame shifting which exists in the culture of the leadership team. When my wife and I started our organisation it was hard to blame anyone else for anything that went wrong. I really only had myself to blame. As we grew, and more people joined our team, there were more people for me to blame when things weren’t as they should be – and I was good at it!

Leadership Responsibility is a Matter of Organisational Culture.

Take responsibility © Artistashmita |

Take responsibility
© Artistashmita |

Some years ago a friend shared with me the difficulties he was facing. His tourism based business grew to the point that he needed to increase staff. He told me story after story of people he had added to his team who just never “owned” the business the way he did. As a consequence their attention to detail, particularly how they related to potential clients, was not up to my friend’s standards. My friend’s solution was to sack staff and replace them. He went through a lot of staff very quickly! In fact, that business eventually closed. His approach did not encourage an organisational culture of leadership responsibility.

Fortunately for me my first employee was my life partner – my wife Candace. She was the one who would usually have to listen to my first reactions to situations as they arose (she still does). Candace would listen, wait for me to settle down if I needed to, and then help me move from blame shifting to a responsibility taking position.

…from blame shifting to a culture of leadership responsibility taking.

As a young leader I knew I had so much to learn (I still do!). I have always been an avid reader and I turned my love of reading to reading as many books on leadership I could. This has become a habit I still practice and value highly. In around 1994 I came across Belasco and Stayers’ book “Flight of the Buffalo.” (You can find a copy here).

The account of a groundskeeper using a broken rake really helped me frame some of my thinking about responsibility taking

One of the authors was walking through the grounds of a major corporation with the president of the company during a leadership coaching session. They came across a person using a rake with only 5 of its original 31 teeth left. The president angrily commented that it was an example of why things were not going well. They were behind schedule and team members had been complaining about not having the right tools etc. The president’s first response was to say he was going to have a serious talk with the supervisor responsible for making sure the grounds staff have the right tools. The supervisor might need more training or even to be replaced. The author leads the president through a reflection process resulting in the president realising he has been a big part of the problems his company has been experiencing. By focussing on who is to blame for things the president had contributed to the development of a blame shifting organisational culture in the company.

On reflection the president could see he had been focussed on solving problems and putting out fires. He should have been building commitment in team members, at every level, to take responsibility for solving problems themselves.

The first question a Fourth Question Leader asks whenever something goes wrong is, “What is it I did or did not do that let that happen?” in whatever variation fits the circumstances. For example:

What is it I did or did not do that let that:

– team member think it was okay to not follow a policy or procedure?

– team member think it was okay to speak to a client that way?

– client respond or complain in that way?

Whatever the situation I can always ask, What is it I did or not do…?

It is much harder and almost counter-intuitive, to take responsibility and reflect on how you may have contributed to the problem than it is to accord blame. When an organisation can be led to develop an organisational culture of responsibility taking everything seems to go so much more smoothly.

I have learned that it is not a “once only” journey. Organisational culture needs to be constantly cultivated. Blame shifting quickly raises its head if I don’t pay continuous attention to this part of the culture of my team.


  • Great leaders take responsibility. They do not shift blame.
  • An organisational culture of blame shifting is toxic to success.
  • An organisational culture of responsibility taking is often counter intuitive and requires continuous leadership focus.
  • Set the example by asking, “What is it I did or did not do which….?”

Additional Resources

How leaders can impact organizational cultures with their actions and behaviors

The Strength of ‘No Blame Game’ Leadership