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Lessons in True Leadership and the Importance of Taking Responsibility

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By Michael Sale

One of my all-time favorite movies is Cecil B. DeMille’s, The Buccaneer, with Yul Brynner (Paramount Pictures, 1958). While there are many aspects of this picture that raise questions about Hollywood’s creative historical license, I often recall that this was where I learned my first important lesson about responsibility.

In his role as the pirate Jean Lafitte, Brynner elects to support the defense of New Orleans against a British attack near the end of the War of 1812. In doing so, he hopes to win American citizenship for himself and his followers. All goes well until it is revealed that one of Lafitte’s rogue captains disobeys orders and sinks an American ship, resulting in the death of all aboard, save for one cabin boy. When word of this tragedy reaches the governor and the citizens of New Orleans, Lafitte is confronted and accused of the treachery. While it is certainly obvious to everyone watching the story, and to Inger Stevens, Brynner’s leading lady and love interest, that Lafitte did not have anything to do with this crime, he takes full responsibility because, “I was their boss!”

As a teen, watching this drama unfold for the first time, I could not understand why Lafitte did not defend himself. After all, it was not his fault and he did not know of, or support, the sinking of a ship by any of his men. Many years later, however, with the wisdom and maturity that comes with experience, I realized that Jean Lafitte, as depicted in The Buccaneer, truly understood the meaning of responsibility and maintained his belief in this virtue, even when it resulted in the loss of his dream: to become an American citizen.

People often confuse responsibility with accountability and, while they may be similar, they are distinctly different. Much has been written on this subject. I subscribe to the notion that we are responsible for doing things and accountable to other people for the success or failure of what we do.

Many of today’s leaders would benefit from an improved understanding of responsibility and the universal expectation that people who hold responsible positions will apply themselves to their tasks and stand up for the what they accomplish or fall short of doing.

I recently attended the Annual Meeting of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police in London, Ontario where I listened to a presentation by Tim Godwin OBE QPM who had served as Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police during various riots that took place in London, England in 2011. Godwin’s overview of crises that consumed most of the energy from 16 police forces provided great insight into the value of good leadership and the understanding of responsibility. Godwin repeatedly gave examples of situations in which commanders and police officers went beyond the call to restore security to affected neighborhoods. He also observed that some situations did not go according to plan and that some events were the subject of significant public criticism.

Most importantly, however, he repeatedly heaped praise on those police officers who had effectively saved the day for many communities while, quite often, he insisted that he was responsible and that he felt it was his duty to be a lightning rod for criticism when police operations fell short. “I was in charge – I was responsible” seemed to be his mantra. I can only imagine what a privilege it must have been to serve in one of his commands.

We all have our own responsibilities. It only seems right that we should regularly reflect on what we are responsible for and the extent to which we commit ourselves to follow through, regardless of the outcome.

 

 

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