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Back near the start of the Gulf of Mexico crisis, Barack Obama claimed to have hid foot on the neck of the oil executives in BP ensuring that they solve the problem.  An unfortunate metaphor perhaps as it is quite difficult to operate an oil rig with someone’s boot on your neck.  However for many weeks as the leak persisted he made it clear it was BP’s problem and BP’s fault and BP were responsible for sorting it out.

Later, as the leak came under control he claimed “WE have stopped the leak”.  Yes you have that correct.  The language changed from “They” (those nasty horrible people in BP) to “We” (Us successful, action orientated, reliable saviours of the world).  Umm.  Were we convinced – No.

Lets be frank, no-one was fooled.  I doubt anything they did would have actually helped BP.  In fact their language was one of making it more difficult.  If they were helping it was not so clearly reported.

Fast forward to Japan, the earthquake, Tsnami and subseqquent problems with the reactors and ponds at Fukushima.  At one point the Japanese Prime Minister calims, “I have told them to use sea water to cool the reactors and get the situation under control”.  Again, lets be clear here.  The Prime Ministerof Japan is unlikely to be a Nuclear Engineer nor to be aware of the precise contingency planning arrangements and procedures that are in place and being executed at the reactor site.

In reality what probably happened was this:  The operators realised they needed to implement plan C (given the shut down had worked properly, but the normal generators for cooling were out of action and the temperature was rising).  Plan C involves pumping sea water into the reactor which would ruin them for any power generation afterwards.  So they told the Prime Minister that this was their plan, as a part of their normal briefing on the situation.  Not a difficult decision in the circumstances, but significant in wide scheme of things for both the control of the site and the consequences for the fuel in the reactors and ponds.   Frankly I would have expected them to have started without his “permission” or “advice”.  (what would have happened if he had said no?)  The pumping was probably underway before he was told, though he might have been briefed earlier that it was a contingency.

However, rather than simply claiming responsibility for the decision, he should have said, that that was the correct planned response that the site had in their contingency plans.

In both cases, the leader claimed responsibility for something that was not their achievement or decision.  Fine if you want to get away with it, but dangerous when it back fires.   The first attempt to stop the leak was only partially successful and the leak continued.  Would Obama have taken responsibility for that p[art of the leak as well?  If the plant had continued to overheat, the rods burnt in the ponds,  and radiation was dispersed, would the Prime minister take responsibility for that also? (Actually given Japan the answer might have been yes, but that is a different circumstance)

Better in both cases to acknowledge the decision making and actions of the people who have actually done the work. For instance, Obama could have said, with humility and dignity, “Despite the pressure and problems, BP seem to have actually stopped the leak.  This is excellent news and we thank them for their hard work and effort in a difficult situation”.   Japan’s prime Minister has been more forthcoming, praising the workers at the plant, especially the “50” who stayed to fight the problems when the situation was at its most critical.  Well done.

The lesson for all managers and leaders:  Claim responibility if you like, but you will be seen through.  Attribute credit where perhaps, previously criticism was due, and you will be seen in a more balanced and fair light.