You take the credit, I'll take the blame

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 5:02AM

Harry Truman’s inscription on his desk “The buck stops here” has become the maxim of responsibility.

Some 2500 years earlier, the philosopher Confucius had taught his disciples the importance of responsibility and accountability, which are today found enshrined in the analects and the four books of the scholars.

Confucius said that if I (in this instance he uses the royal pronoun 朕 reserved only for the emperor) in my personal capacity have committed an offense (or crime) 罪, pray spare my subjects; but if my subjects have committed offenses (or crimes), the responsibility rests with me.

The use of the royal pronoun 朕 is purely allegorical as it represents one in authority and power which extends beyond the sovereign-subject relationship to relationships between employer-employee, boss-servant, and even parent-child.

The sense of culpability is still practised in the Japanese culture where CEOs take the rap for corporate offenses and take the honorable step to resign, and in some cases have even committed hara-kiri (suicide by disembowelment) in an admission of remorse and shame.

The use of the word 罪 which means offense or crime is noteworthy, as it does not refer to merely mistakes or even misdemeanors. In the corporate world, what then would constitute an offense or crime? One need not stretch one’s imagination as the headlines are full of stories of criminal shenanigans, breach of trust, theft, deceit, and so on, which have toppled giants the from the likes of Enron to Lehman.

The implications of this lesson from Confucius are profound. If one is held accountable not only for oneself but also for one’s subordinates, does one have a moral compass and what parameters should one employ in one’s selection of one’s staff? Is meritocracy in itself effective in making corporate decisions? Would examination grades and past experience suffice or does one’s moral standing count? What criteria should one use? How then should we nurture those in our charge to build integrity and upright values? The teachings of the sage have provided us with answers which we'll examine in our weekly discourse.

Is it also time to review the effectiveness of whistleblowing and replace it with a culture of integrity and trust. Or should the current practice of assigning blame and passing the buck continue?