What does it mean to shoulder responsibility?

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Friday May 2, 2014

任重而道遠An officer’s burden is heavy and his course is long. Confucius

The tragic sinking of the ferry in Korea has raised contrasting behavioral responses. The captain jumped ship, the vice principal committed suicide and the prime minister resigned.

What would have been a happy school excursion to the island of Jeju for 325 second year Danwon high school students turned disastrous as the ferry they were on capsized, with 213 confirmed dead and 89 remained missing.

The captain, like the proverbial rat abandoning the sinking ship, scrambled to safety as hundreds of passengers remained trapped in the ferry. All 15 of the surviving crew are charged for negligence and abandoning passengers.

The vice principal who was saved from the sinking ferry with hundreds of his students on board was later found hanging by his belt from a tree. A suicide note in his wallet cited his guilt of having survived. He took full responsibility as he had pushed through the trip. (CNA, May 1)

The prime minister of South Korea resigned over this incident, taking responsibility for not being able to prevent this tragedy from happening and the government’s inability to respond in time. (CNA, May 1)

The responses of the three individuals exemplify a spectrum of what it means to shoulder responsibility. In the case of the captain, his shameful scrambling to safety, when he should have been concerned for the lives he was entrusted with, was reprehensible. He was irrefutably irresponsible. An officer must be resolute and steadfast for his burden is heavy and his road is long. Confucius.

The suicide of the vice principal demonstrated an acknowledgement of his responsibility. His being saved from the sinking ferry added to his burden of guilt. It must have been inconceivable that he should live when many the young lives in his care were lost. To him, taking his own life, like the Japanese custom of Seppuku or hara-kiri seemed like the honorable thing to do.

The resignation of the Prime minister, who technically could not have prevented the disaster, was a personal admission that the buck stopped with him. He was responsible for the safety and well-being of his citizens. He did not assign blame and nor did he dismiss his juniors or anyone else linked with the disaster. Even when the cause of the tragedy had not been established, the imputed blame rested squarely on his shoulders.

This is in line with a Confucian precept that if "I (referring to a person in authority) commit a crime, my people should not be blamed. But if my people commit crimes, I alone am guilty." Leaders or people in authority should not just take credit when things go right and assign blame when things go wrong. Leaders are expected to shoulder responsibility.

"Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself. He imposes his own stamp of action, takes responsibility for it, makes it his own." Charles de Gaulle. Can one be trusted to behave responsibly?

We are reminded by Winston Churchill that The price of greatness is responsibility.