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Real Leaders Don’t Pass theBuck: A Leadership Lesson for Donald Trump

March 5, 2017

William “Ryan” Owens had upholding the good in his blood. His father was a uniformed police officer while his mother was detective. Born on March 5, 1980 in Peoria, Illinois, Owens spent much of his formative years in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but graduated from high school in Illinois. As soon as he was out of high school he joined the U.S. Navy.

After serving a short stint with the Office of Naval Intelligence in Maryland, Owens joined the Navy SEALS in 2002. He was promoted to chief petty officer in 2009 (my father held the same rank during World War Two in the Royal Canadian Navy). He served several tours of duty during his time with the SEALS, but it was the recent raid in Yemen where Owens was killed in a firefight. A recipient of numerous medals (eg, two Bronze Stars, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and three Presidential Unit Citations), Owens is survived by his wife Carryn Owens and their three children.

This was a tragic event. Yet, the work of Navy SEALS and other special operations groups is highly dangerous. Every mission has risks, but it’s the price a nation pays through the lives of their military members to keep citizens safe. Counter terrorism is an especially risky endeavour.

Ryan Owens.jpg

When the 36 year-old Owens and his team were about to enter the al-Qaeda compound in Yemen on January 29th, they were detected and immediately fired upon by al-Qaeda fighters and Yemeni tribesmen. A helicopter was requested to evacuate the wounded Owens who later died. Three other SEALS were wounded, and a reported 30 civilians were killed during the raid

The political firestorm that erupted shortly afterwards, with initial allegations that no actionable intelligence was obtained, contributes to the growing divide in the United States (the intelligence claim was later proved false). While it may never be known precisely what useful intelligence was gathered, military officials have acknowledged that the most prominent Yemeni killed in the raid was Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab. A tribal leader, he wasn’t considered to be a high value target by the United States.

As if the political repercussions aren’t reprehensible enough in light that a U.S. service man was killed while in combat, Donald Trump tried to distance himself from what’s being called a “botched” raid. Trump went so far as to try to pin the blame on President Obama. In an interview on Fox, Trump stated: “This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they [military’s generals under Obama] wanted to do. They came to see me, they told me what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected—my generals are most respected we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”

This politicizing of an anti-terrorist mission disrespects Chief Petty Office Owens. One has only to look at other ill-fated special ops missions to see how political leaders reacted. One particular tragic event comes to mind: Operation Eagle Claw.


President Jimmy Carter had a very tough decision to make. Radical Iranian students had been holding 52 American diplomats and citizens at the U.S. embassy in Tehran since November 4, 1979. (In the end, it remains the longest hostage situation recorded—444 days.) Planning and preparation for the very complex operation took months, with the date set for April 24, 1980. Operation Eagle Claw, one of Delta Force’s first missions, was born.

Problems started at Desert One, the staging area, where eight helicopters were to land. However, only five arrived in operational condition. While four helicopters were seen as being sufficient for the mission, military commanders advised scrubbing it since they wanted six or more to be operational. President Carter agreed to this request. When the helicopters were leaving, one flew into a military transport, causing an explosion. Both aircraft were destroyed and eight service men were killed.

President Carter wore the results of the disastrous rescue mission to the November 1980 election, which produced a huge victory for Ronald Reagan.

Rather than trying to deflect criticism and blame for the failed mission, President Carter went on national television to accept responsibility, stating: “It was my decision to attempt the rescue operation. It was my decision to cancel it when problems developed in the placement of our rescue team for a future rescue operation. The responsibility is fully my own.”


Real leaders, regardless of whether in politics, government or business, never pass the buck. It doesn’t apply only to those at the top but also down through the hierarchy. However, what really distinguishes a top leader is when he or she assumes responsibility for mistakes that happen elsewhere in the organization.

Take former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop as an example. Read this post on how Elop took responsibility for the mess that Nokia was in when he took over the CEO position. Elop never blamed the mess on his predecessors but used “we” in communicating to employees on Nokia’s “burning platform.”

There are numerous other examples about top leaders who owned responsibility for major mistakes or deliberate falsifications. There’s Mary Barra, an electrical engineer who had worked for General Motors for 30 years, who in 2014 was named the company’s first female CEO. When the news exploded with reports that GM had put over 1.7 million cars on the road with an ignition switch defect, resulting in over a dozen deaths, Barra owned the problem. The company was faced with a huge recall. Barra decided to address the crisis directly, and in a publicly filmed statement in front of millions of viewers, she personally apologized: “Something went very wrong…and terrible things happened.”

Then there’s the crisis that Texaco CEO Peter Bijur faced with allegations of racism from African American employees who sued Texaco for racial discrimination in 1994. The employees produced recordings of secret conversations among Texaco executives. A boycott of Texaco was organized as public outrage grew. Bijur responded quickly to the escalating crisis. He immediately suspended the executives involved before investigations had even begun. He then apologized publicly. And Texaco initiated a campaign where senior executives met with employees at all of its locations to apologize in person. Bijur followed this process with the introduction of discrimination checks for executives and managers to ensure that the problem wouldn’t re-occur.

Top leaders own problems that arise in their organizations and take effective action to correct them. They incorporate a learning component to ensure that the lessons learned are not forgotten and are embedded in the organization’s way of doing business. The starting point in the process is what has now become vernacular wisdom, courtesy of President Harry Truman: “The buck stops here.”

A lie which is half truth is ever the blackest of lies.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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