The recent resignation of Eric Shinseki from his former position as the head of the Department of Veteran Affairs raised, once again, the issue of the responsibilities of a leader. While I will not address the specific case of Shinseki, I will use this opportunity discuss leadership and responsibility in general terms.
Not surprisingly, people often assign responsibility based on ideology. For example, Democrats would be more inclined to regard a Republican leader as being fully responsible for his subordinates while being more forgiving of fellow Democrats. However, judging responsibility based on political ideology is obviously a poor method of assessment. What is needed is, obviously enough, some general principles that can be used to assess the responsibility of leaders in a consistent manner.
Interestingly (or boringly) enough, I usually approach the matter of leadership and responsibility using an analogy to the problem of evil. Oversimplified quite a bit, the problem of evil is the problem of reconciling God being all good, all knowing and all powerful with the existence of evil in the world. If God is all good, then he would tolerate no evil. If God was all powerful, He could prevent all evil. And if God was all knowing, then He would not be ignorant of any evil. Given God’s absolute perfection, He thus has absolute responsibility as a leader: He knows what every subordinate is doing, knows whether it is good or evil and has the power to prevent or cause any behavior. As such, when a subordinate does evil, God has absolute accountability. After all, the responsibility of a leader is a function of what he can know and the extent of his power.
In stark contrast, a human leader (no matter how awesome) falls rather short of God. Such leaders are clearly not perfectly good and they are obviously not all knowing or all powerful. These imperfections thus lower the responsibility of the leader.
In the case of goodness, no human can be expected to be morally perfect. As such, failures of leadership due to moral imperfection can be excusable—within limits. The challenge is, of course, sorting out the extent to which imperfect humans can legitimately be held morally accountable and to what extent our unavoidable moral imperfections provide a legitimate excuse. These standards should be applied consistently to leaders so as to allow for the highest possible degree of objectivity.
In the case of knowledge, no human can be expected to be omniscient—we have extreme limits on our knowledge. The practical challenge is sorting out what a leader can reasonably be expected to know and the responsibility of the leader should be proportional to that extent of knowledge. This is complicated a bit by the fact that there are at least two factors here, namely the capacity to know and what the leader is obligated to know. Obligations to know should not exceed the human capacity to know, but the capacity to know can often exceed the obligation to know. For example, the President could presumably have everyone spied upon (which is apparently what he did do) and thus could, in theory, know a great deal about his subordinates. However, this would seem to exceed what the President is obligated to know (as President) and probably exceeds what he should know.
Obviously enough, what a leader can know and what she is obligated to know will vary greatly based on the leader’s position and responsibilities. For example, as the facilitator of the philosophy & religion unit at my university, my obligation to know about my colleagues is very limited as is my right to know about them. While I have an obligation to know what courses they are teaching, I do not have an obligation or a right to know about their personal lives or whether they are doing their work properly on outside committees. So, if a faculty member skipped out on committee meetings, I would not be responsible for this—it is not something I am obligated to know about.
As another example, the chair of the department has greater obligations and rights in this regard. He has the right and obligation to know if they are teaching their classes, doing their assigned work and so on. Thus, when assessing the responsibility of a leader, sorting out what the leader could know and what she was obligated to know are rather important matters.
In regards to power (taken in a general sense), even the most despotic dictator’s powers are still finite. As such, it is reasonable to consider the extent to which a leader can utilize her authority or use up her power to compel subordinates to obey. As with knowledge, responsibility is proportional to power. After all, if a leader lacks to power (or authority) to compel obedience in regards to certain matters, then the leader cannot be accountable for not making the subordinates do or not do certain actions. Using myself as an example, my facilitator position has no power: I cannot demote, fire, reprimand or even put a mean letter into a person’s permanent record. The extent of my influence is limited to my ability to persuade—with no rewards or punishments to offer. As such, my responsibility for the actions of my colleagues is extremely limited.
There are, however, legitimate concerns about the ability of a leader to make people behave correctly and this raises the question of the degree to which a leader is responsible for not being persuasive enough or using enough power to make people behave. That is, the concern is when bad behavior based on resisting applied authority or power is the fault of the leader or the fault of the resistor. This is similar to the concern about the extent to which responsibility for failing to learn falls upon the teacher and to which it falls on the student. Obviously, even the best teacher cannot reach all students and it would seem reasonable to believe that even the best leader cannot make everyone do what they should be doing.
Thus, when assessing alleged failures of leadership it is important to determine where the failures lie (morality, knowledge or power) and the extent to which the leader has failed. Obviously, principled standards should be applied consistently—though it can be sorely tempting to damn the other guy while forgiving the offenses of one’s own guy.