As the Left gins up protests, media talkers fume over a President’s style, Congress “boycotts” confirmations, and bureaucrats sign “dissent cables,” something else is happening in Washington – and going unnoticed. Leadership is rooting.
Former General, now Homeland Security Secretary, James Kelly just modeled it. He did something not often done in Washington – he took personal responsibility. This week, having been hauled before Congress to explain a botched rollout of an Executive Order (EO), the former General stepped up and “owned” it. He brought light – and an ethic of selfless military service to his civilian agency.
The EO in question was designed to protect Americans from potential terrorist events, tied to better filtering visitors from seven terror-linked countries. When it rolled out, arguably without ample preparation, legal and operational parameters were immediately tested. Confusion ensued. Who was subject to the EO, what standards applied to whom, how should agents manage differing categories of travelers, and how assure the law was implemented in accord with intent?
Blame lay for the casting, but different from prior botched rollouts. From Obamacare to you-name-it, a leader stepped into the breach. He drew the blame and did so without excuse. If the rollout encountered unexpected circumstances, created regrettable and unintended consequences, needed correcting – and all this did happen – it was on him. That is how he saw it.
No one pulled the classic shell game, one agency shagging or shaming another, domino recriminations, blame shifting and minimizing, or rewriting the fumbled play as a near touchdown. None of that.
Instead, like watching the sun rise after weeks of rain – or years of bureaucratic fog and practiced dissembling – something striking caught the eye. This cabinet member just stepped up and said he owned the problem. Wow!
All across Washington, people watching on television, stopped – and listened. You could hear a pin drop. Heads swiveled, eyes narrowed, and minds clicked to “on” position – from dusty “off.” This was truly novel. Was this not a political error? What was this thing – fully owning a mistake, a big problem, taking unmitigated responsibility for it before Congress and the media, not minimizing the fallout nor deflecting accountability? What was this?
This thing contravened the Washington mindset, the default to blame shifting, deflection, distraction and denial. Surely, no one voluntarily “owned” a big national problem, failure, or omission. No one made mistakes here, except of a sort that the public was conditioned to forgive and forget. This was out the movies, a Jimmy Stewart sort of thing. What was this?
The answer? Personal responsibility. Before the Congress sat a noble, honest, and honor-bound, General in suit and tie. Just telling the truth as he saw it. No dissembling, no self-preservation, no nonsense, not bull. This was refreshing, somehow freeing.
Catalytic? Yes, change creating because this act of personal accountability – of leadership – occurred before all of Washington, on live television. Here was a leader, a man who urged others to own mistakes, and did himself. Own, correct, learn, and grow.
More surprising, and a jolt for politicians and bureaucrats alike, this was obviously done without political calculation or forethought, no intent to save himself from embarrassment, criticism or recrimination. He was doing what leaders do – own, fix, learn, grow, and lead by example.
The Homeland Security Secretary defended the EO, but conceded the rollout was inefficient and not well coordinated. He explained. "The thinking was to get it out quick so that potentially people coming here to harm us …could not take advantage of some period of time that they could jump on an airplane and get here, or get here in other ways." That was the goal.
But implementation was not smooth. "In retrospect, I should have, this is all on me by the way, I should have delayed it just a bit so that I could talk to members of Congress, particularly the leadership of committees like this to prepare them for what was coming although I think most people would agree …” Wow!
Then, he shielded others from undue blame, crediting the uniformed services. "As the great men and women, particularly the border protection people, as they unfolded that and started to implement it I should say, they came back to us with some suggestions about how we could alter it." In other words, they tried to loyally make it work, and it did improve over time – about six hours into the process. All credit to them. Wow again!
More: “Going forward I would have certainly taken some time to inform the Congress and certainly that's something all of us will be doing in the future." In other words, the mistake mine – I own it, and I will fix it. My role is to serve higher purposes, learn and improve. A pivot then to shared values. "Everyone was treated humanely.” When others sought to shift blame at the White House, he would not have that either. He had not been blindsided, just should have been better prepared.
What does this exchange really mean? To some, little. To others, it will mean a lot. The entire country wants a Federal Government, from Congress and President to wider Administration and Judiciary – that is accountable. Here is how that is done.
In effect, step up, own your job – do your best every day, based on a worthy personal code, some set of elevated standards that make you feel good about doing all you can with what you have been given – and then, when the inevitable mistakes happen, avoidable or not, based on a lapse of judgment or attempt at innovation, admit the mistake fully, own it. Then fix it and learn from the experience.
The kicker. If official Washington changes only in this one way – if Federal employees take full and personal responsibility for their jobs, learn to willingly step up and own mistakes, fix them and thrive on that ethic, all of Washington will change. And it can be done! General – or Secretary – Kelly, just showed us how it is done. If you are looking for hope in a time of change, there it is – for all of us.