Credit, Blame, and Leadership

Leaders often are tempted to take too much credit for success and too much blame for failure within the organization they lead. Although in faith-based organizations the tendency often is to deflect praise away from oneself, those in leadership often receive most of the credit or most of the blame. This is even more likely when the leader has a dominant personality (personality-driven leadership).

Exodus 32 presents a fascinating scenario of a leader who refuses to take either credit or blame, but who maintains responsibility and focus.

Moses was God’s designated leader who led the Hebrew people to freedom after 400-years of bondage in Egypt. The people witnessed numerous miracles, not the least of which was the parting of the Red Sea which enabled them to escape the pursuing Egyptian army. They received the Ten Commandments and willingly entered into sacred covenant with God. But when Moses returned to Mount Sinai to receive further instructions from God, the people become fearful at his extended absence. They asked Moses’ brother, Aaron, to “make us gods who will go before us” (Ex. 32:1), which Aaron did.

Meanwhile, atop the mountain, God told Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt” (v. 7). Without delving into the theological aspects of the text, consider this from a practical perspective of leadership.

Refuse to take undue credit for success.

With or without the miracles, leading these people out of Egypt was no small feat! And Moses had indeed led them. So Moses’ leadership role should not be minimized. However, it was not out of any false humility that Moses responded to God, these are “your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand” (v. 11). Moses recognized that God had done the “heavy lifting” and gave credit where credit was due.

There is a time and place for personal recognition; and leaders should respond graciously and humbly when receiving such. False humility is insincere and off-putting! At the same time, leaders must also give recognition where recognition is due; this may be to other paid staff or to volunteers, or to anyone who has contributed. Recognize and affirm those who are contributing to the organization, whether in ways great or small!

Refuse to take undue blame for failure.

Moses did not own the people’s – or his brother’s – actions. That is, he recognized that Aaron and the people made their decision and were responsible for their actions. When God identified the people as “your people,” Moses easily could have taken personally their failure.

Rare is the leader who has never been personally blamed for some failure within the organization, even if she had no direct role in the event. Unfortunately, as leaders, we often personally take ownership of the failures of others within our organization. However, this is a recipe for burnout. In addition, it often leads to failure to enact appropriate discipline, thus denying those who have failed the opportunity to learn from their failure.

Be the leader.

When he came down from the mountain, Moses enacted disciplinary action. While some of the discipline may seem overly harsh, we need to consider the historical and cultural context is very different from our own.

The will and the courage to discipline bad choices or poor behavior is a necessary part of leadership. Choices have consequences. Forgiveness does not remove the responsibility or the consequences for poor decisions.

As leaders, we may need to remove an employee or a volunteer from their position. We may have to enact a probationary period for someone. We may need to close a department. Hard choices are a necessary part of leading an organization.

While Moses did not take ownership for the people’s actions, he did take responsibility for leading the people well. Following disciplinary action, Moses told the people: “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Ex. 32:30). And he did.

Somehow, Moses found the sweet spot of not owning the choices of others within his “organization,” while fully accepting responsibility to lead them past their current reality. He chose to seek a positive way forward rather than continue punishing them for their poor choices or throwing up his hands in defeat and walking away.

Effective leaders refuse to get caught up in taking undue credit for success or undeserved blame for failures. Instead, they maintain perspective and seek the most appropriate course of action going forward.

Written by guest blogger, the Rev. Dr. Rhonda L. Carrim, associate professor of Practical Theology at Northwest Nazarene University. Previously, she taught and pastored in Trinidad and England. She and husband Errol are passionate about helping Christian leaders thrive in life and ministry.