10. Spread the Fame in Success and Take the Blame in Failure – 21 Success Sutras for Leaders

Chapter Ten

Spread the Fame in Success and Take the Blame in Failure

Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.


Dwight D. Eisenhower

Leadership is about referring to ‘we’, not ‘I’. Leadership is about walking the talk. Leadership is about facing distractions squarely in daily life. Leadership is about how many challenges the leaders face, and how they inch ahead with energy and enthusiasm. Leadership is not a cakewalk, but a path ridden with both bouquets and brickbats. Above all, leadership is all about spreading the fame during success and taking the blame during failure.

Level 5 Leadership

Jim Collins wrote about Level 5 leadership in his book, Good to Great (2001). According to him, there are five levels of leaders, and those at level 5 do not mind who takes the credit for their efforts. They are also very passionate about their job. They are symbols of personal humility and professional will. The level 5 leaders spread the fame during success and take the blame during failure. In fact, the real strength of leaders surface during tough times and in the face of failures. How far do leaders stand by their decision? Do they blame others, or do they make scapegoats of them? When times are smooth, everyone comes forward to lead. However, real leaders come forward during a crisis.

When leaders make decisions, they know that every decision may not turn out successfully. A few decisions are bound to fail. When they encounter failures, real leaders take responsibility and accept the blame. They don’t search for scapegoats. People are intelligent enough to identify such authentic leaders.

Barack Obama—A Level 5 Leader

American President Barack Obama is an example of a Level 5 leader who gives credit to his team. After the successful completion of Operation Geronimo where Osama Bin Laden was eliminated, Obama thanked his team for the effective execution and did not hog the limelight. He kept himself engaged with other regular activities. He truly followed what Lao Tzu had said,

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists; …. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say,‘We did this ourselves.’

The level 5 leaders enjoy the soft glow of the penumbra, not the glare of the spotlight.

Willy Brandt (1913-92)

Willy Brandt was the Chancellor of West Germany from 1969 to 1974. He led at a time when the world was reeling under the Cold War between the USA and the erstwhile USSR. He demonstrated his leadership abilities at a crucial time and improved relations with East Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. He stands as a leader who takes the blame during failure and spreads the fame during success. Willy Brandt was a soft leader. Time named him Man of the Year in 1970. The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.

Leadership is not a badge of honour, but a job that involves responsibility. The authentic leaders are aware that the path is ridden with challenges and are prepared to face distractions and criticism. They also spread the fame to make a difference in the lives of others.

Mark—Symbol of Academic Leadership: Taking the Blame

The price of greatness is responsibility.

Winston Churchill

This is the story of Mark, who was the head of the research department in a prestigious educational institution. He hailed from a military background and took charge as the head of the research department, which had been newly set up to provide direction to the academic institution. He worked hard from the beginning by recruiting the right people, who had a flair for writing and research, and gradually the department began to progress rapidly. Mark encouraged books of various genres to enhance diversity, and within a short span of time, the research department had produced more than 1,000 books, a few of which were best-sellers. Mark reported to his immediate boss, who was the director. Whenever the director praised the efforts put in by Mark, the latter passed on the fame to his team members, who were constantly supportive and gave their best to provide vision to the research department. Mark publicly praised the researchers for their contribution and innovative approaches, which provided the right direction to the department.

However, things changed with the entry of three new researchers who began vitiating the ambience. These three were not regular in reporting to work and began taking things lightly. They even encouraged the throwing of regular parties in the office. Gradually, the production of books dipped, leading to a dent in the image of Mark’s academic leadership. Mark was basically a soft leader; he corrected the behaviour of these three new employees and called for personal discussions, where he implored them to pull up their socks. However, one of the books published was found to have violated copyright, and as a result, Mark came under fire from his director. The mistake was actually made by one of the new employees; however, Mark took the blame for his failure to check the irregularities and put in his papers. Finally, the director requested Mark to continue and the other employees in the research department realized the gravity of the situation. They soon fell in line to produce quality books. From this story, it is clear that good leaders spread fame during successes and take the blame during failures.

Story of a Senior Editor—Taking the Fame

Here is the story of a senior editor who wanted to swallow the credit from somebody. John was the senior editor of a prestigious publishing house, who decided the fate of the book proposals submitted for publication. Michael was an author who sent his book proposal to the publishing house for its perusal. The senior editor asked William to look at the proposal and gauge its feasibility. After considering for three months, the book proposal was accepted, but the title of the book was changed. Michael had great contacts through his professional network as he was an established author who was looking for international presence for his books. Michael’s friend Kate, an international author, requested him to help her contact a genuine and prestigious publishing house from his country for reprinting her successfully sold book. Michael spoke over the phone with the senior editor about this, and the latter was excited at the lead. After communicating with Kate, Michael sent a mail to the senior editor (copying in Kate) detailing this opportunity, requesting him to approach Kate. Michael also requested the senior editor to keep him in the loop regarding all the correspondence that would take place with Kate.

The senior editor communicated directly with Kate about the proposal to print her book. Kate informed Michael about the communication over email. Subsequently, Michael put in a mail to the senior editor appreciating his initiative, and once again advised the latter to keep him in the loop during the entire communication. The senior editor replied that his assistant had forgotten to copy Michael in the communication loop. Michael understood that the senior editor wanted to swallow the credit for this lead within the publishing house by keeping him out of the loop. After a few days, Kate sent a personal mail to Michael, telling him the publishing house had agreed to reprint her book, and thanking him for the help he had extended. Michael was happy that Kate’s project had been accepted and congratulated her.

Subsequently, Michael sent an email to the senior editor’s boss, telling him how the former had kept him in the dark about the developments, and how he had shown no gratitude. He kept the senior editor in the loop of the written communication to make things transparent. The boss then realized that the real lead had been given by Michael, and regretted the mistake. He thanked Michael for the same, and said he would be extended all professional courtesy for this project.

From this story, it is clear that some people want to swallow the credit for the efforts put in by others. But the fact is that the truth is always powerful, and one day it will come out. Michael did not expect any returns from the publishing house; he only sought professional treatment and expected ethical practices to be followed while handling such issues.

Leadership is all about helping others accomplish their goals. Zig Ziglar once remarked,‘If you’ll just help enough other people get what they want then you’ll get what you want.’ When you extend your hand to others, you get returns in plenty. In addition, the pleasure you get when you see others growing in front of you is immense and invaluable. Hence, learn to spread the fame when things go well and accept the blame when things go wrong, as it will help you stand tall forever.