Leaders who refuse to take ownership of their decisions, are not leaders at all. Whether they blame others, offer excuses, or ignore reality altogether, leaders who refuse to accept responsibility when a plan or an initiative fails, sacrifice significant organizational credibility. They do so because they have abdicated one of the most essential responsibilities of efficacious leaders—ownership. Even though effective leaders hold those who share responsibility for organizational failures answerable, they know that ultimate accountability rests with them and they shoulder it.
Even though conceived and planned by some of the brightest military and political minds of that time, General Eisenhower saw that Operation Overlord involved substantial risks and had the potential for failure. Nonetheless, he also believed and was prepared to act on the belief that it had to be done. On June 5, 1944, he met with a number of those brave souls who were readying themselves to be part of the Normandy Invasion. His words of encouragement and support were both welcomed and long-remembered. However, when he returned to his quarters that evening, he did something that clearly demonstrated the depths of his concerns and heights of his character as a leader.
On a small piece of paper, he penciled a brief statement to be issued should the assault to be made the next day failed. The following is the text of the statement.
Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.
With less than seventy words, the general and future president was prepared to share with an anxious world that an operation that had been in planning for more than year, had not met anticipated objectives. As the leader, the Supreme Commander, he was also prepared to accept total responsibility for the failure.
When the organization succeeds, great leaders share the credit. When the organization fails, they accept the blame.