Whenever someone is in a leadership role, they are prone to either be given credit or blame for things that happen on their watch. We evaluate POTUS in terms of the economy, assigning either credit or blame, even though the economy is influenced by many factors that are longer than the short 4 year terms US Presidents occupy. We pay close attention when we are blamed for something, and we swell with pride when we get credit. I remember two instances that illustrate this concept when I was newly put in charge of the Asia Pacific region. Within my first two weeks in the role, a very large client left us for our primary competitor. It had a huge impact to my new employees, 70 of whom were assigned to this account. People were laid off. I had not yet even met with this client, and it’s nearly certain that their decision to change companies was made well in advance of my assignment. Nevertheless, I was blamed for this loss because it happened on my watch, and I had to clean up the mess.
Conversely, one of the directors who reported to me was strongly underperforming in her role. I had hired this person when I was new to my role, mostly because there were no other strong candidates at the time who didn’t have more concerning drawbacks. I was on the fence about her, but we needed to fill the role. Oddly enough, when she failed to do a good job, my boss continually blamed my predecessor who was no longer with the company. I felt obligated to clarify that I was the one who hired her, so it was my fault. Allowing him to take the blame would not have hurt him. It only hurt me to take the blame, and it helped no one. Maybe I should have let him be blamed, bit I didn’t.
I had been promoted from a role in the US in which I was very successful, a top performer, based in large part on a global initiative I had partly created and overseen that saved the company millions. As soon as I changed roles, though, my prior boss (who had stayed put) started to get sole credit for the project as it completed, and I got no credit at all, as if I hadn’t devised or overseen the launch and first 80% of the project that had resulted in my promotion. It’s like everyone suddenly had amnesia about everything I had done before. No credit whatsoever. Out of sight, out of mind. Instead, I was tied to new problems that were left behind by my predecessor (and in fairness, he probably had inherited most of them).
Inherited problems are a very real issue for modern day Church leaders. They didn’t invent racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-intellectualism, polygamy, conservatism, church structures, the Church’s budget, the temple ceremony, the missionary program, the youth programs, or any number of programs, doctrines, and pesky historical facts. All they can do is decide which things are problems and how to address them, if at all. Yet, they might be blamed. They might also get credit for things they didn’t do, that were already in play. They are a cog in the machine, a moment in time, in a progression of events.
Looking at the current Afghanistan withdrawal, this concept of credit and blame comes to mind again. I was listening to the five-thirty-eight podcast’s discussion about whether the public is more prone to blame Biden for the botched withdrawal and its casualties, to blame Trump for having announced the withdrawal and brokered its terms with the Taliban, to blame 20 years of Presidents for continuing a war that apparently resulted in no sustainable gains, or to give credit for finally realizing that we couldn’t change Afghanistan’s government if they didn’t want to fight for it and making the unpleasant decision to get our troops out once and for all. A comment in the podcast put it simply, that it all depends on the narrative that emerges, mostly from the media. Either the withdrawal will be seen as the right move, executed imperfectly, a complete failure of foreign policy, or something in between.
Likewise, we’ve all been discussing the Church response to the pandemic. There have been numerous posts on various Mormon blogs “grading” the pandemic response, dissecting new announcements as they occur, sifting through local wards and leaderships’ responses, etc. There’s been an effort to blame or credit leaders in ways that are contradictory for things beyond their control as well as things in their control. For example:
- Some complained that what’s the point of having prophets who can’t predict / avoid / respond quickly and effectively to a global pandemic.
- Some blamed them for not taking it seriously enough by not talking enough about it in General Conference.
- Some gave them credit for setting the example to get vaccinated, wear masks, and socially distance.
- Others blamed them for not mandating ward level restrictions or reining in local authorities who were anti-mask.
- BYU’s lack of requirement of vaccination has garnered some blame as other universities require vaccination.
- Some have lauded the Church’s unwillingness to mandate.
- Some have blamed “fallen prophets” for encouraging vaccination and mask-wearing.
Anyway, you get the gist. The point is, as was probably the case with my own career, whether you are blamed or given credit probably depends much more on two things than anything else:
- Current perception of you as a leader, in the moment, as it is shifting. Your reputation is always in flux.
- Whatever narrative prevails. In a work setting, this could be the narrative that colleagues or clients are sharing, whether it’s true or not. In Church, it could be what you are hearing in your ward, from your friends and relatives, or blogs and social media you choose to consume. It’s usually tied to your current reputation, though, in a spiraling effect.
The narrative we choose to believe has to fit in with our total worldview, our set of beliefs. What’s interesting when it comes to the pandemic and the Church’s response is that it is shifting some worldviews away from the de facto infallibility view that so many orthodox members have held toward one that is both more reasonable (leaders can make actual mistakes) and more self-justified (if they disagree with me, they might be wrong). When we were in Spain having dinner with some friends, they mentioned that many of their fellow ward members were against masks and vaccines (perhaps not so many as in the US, but still, they found it alarming), and they saw this as a mark of disbelief in church leaders. They reasoned that if we have a prophet, why aren’t these people following his counsel. I joked back that, in the US at least, Trump is their prophet, and boy, are they following him. It’s a joke with a kernel of truth to it. Some have substituted one authority fallacy for another. Anything that erodes unwarranted confidence in the “arm of flesh” (unqualified expertise, for example) and encourages individuals to “study it out” and arrive at their own conclusions, seeking more expert information in the process, can’t be all bad. As another person (on Twitter) put it, “Welcome to the Cafeteria.” Unfortunately, lack of discernment between good sources and bad ones is all too common.
This reminds me of another blame / credit story. A few months ago I watched the Netlix documentary about Mark Hoffman’s forgeries, then listened to Peter Bleakley’s podcast in which he talked about then E. Oaks’ role in the Church’s connection to the (forged) Salamander Letter. In a statement to explain why the letter’s content should not damage testimonies, E. Oaks laid out a simple defense:
- Members needed to re-evaluate the definition of “salamander” which could be a symbolic being that meant something else and was associated with fire in mythology, just like Jesus and God were in scripture. As an English major, I can appreciate this approach. People are far too literal when it comes to religious texts and texts in general. Can we blame them for taking a salamander literally? Yes, we can.
- The media was creating an unfair narrative to make the letter look damaging and contradictory to the Church’s origin story. The media was to blame.
- Members were too lazy to understand it. Members lacked spirituality and discernment. Members were to blame for their own lack of faith. I mean, sure, the members suck. We all know that. Easy target.
At the time he made these statements, he believed the letter to be valid, not a cruel joke by a forger. He was defending the letter as legitimate. When it was revealed that Hoffman invented the whole thing, laughing to himself the whole time, E. Oaks responded with a different defense:
- Church leaders are far too busy and important to know the ins and outs of these things (downplaying that they had met with Hoffman several times and did not believe he was a forger). They aren’t to blame.
- Hoffman was an experienced forger who had fooled many experts. How could we blame Church leaders as non-experts?
- Leaders are trained to be trusting, not suspicious, to be able to perform their pastoral roles. They aren’t to blame. This one goes a bit far for me. Are our top leaders really trained to be pastoral? Really? I’d love it if they were, but it just doesn’t seem like the role they embrace.
None of these defenses (both before he knew it was a forgery and after) are unreasonable. When viewed together, it reveals a very human pattern. We want to get credit for good things, but avoid blame when things make us look bad. We don’t always seek to do this by blaming others, but that’s one tactic to deflect blame from ourselves, one that some Church leaders employ more than others. On the whole, it seems that Church leaders are more used to getting credit for good things and to deflect blame to members or lower level leaders when something goes wrong. This is a mostly successful strategy with Church members, one that the majority buy into whole-heartedly, because to do otherwise throws the whole Mormon worldview into question in their minds. This is doubtless why this strategy is used (aside from self-justification which is a standard human motive). It works.
- How do you see leader reputation playing into how members frame the Church’s stance on vaccinations and masks?
- Which narratives do you see emerging related to blame and credit in the Church in the last five years?
- Does the Church strike the right balance for you between accepting blame and taking credit? Why or why not?
- Are you as good at accepting blame as you are at taking credit?
- Do we blame the membership too much and the leadership too little in the Church? Defend your answer.
- Which is worse in leadership? Giving them credit that isn’t due or blame that is unfair? Why?
I always enjoy your insightful posts. Our culture of leader worship is one where leaders are never wrong, decisions are always inspired, and specific mistakes are not acknowledged. We have “corrections” and “adjustments” but leaders do not take responsibility for decisions. Ultimately I believe it only erodes their credibility.
Hawk girl asks who is to blame for various problems that the Church has to deal with. The answer is simple. It is members who fail to see the big picture.
When it comes to the pandemic response, it is fearful members who do not understand statistics who are driving the problem. These members do not understand probabilities at all. They do not understand that if they are vaccinated, they have a greater chance of dying in a car accident driving to Church than they do of catching Covid at Church and dying. Yet they blame the leaders for not doing anything enough.
These same fearful members give no thought to lining up in the drive in line for the local soft drink shop. They criticize Church leaders as they gulp down their 73 oz fireball cherry cold pop.
And then, they stop off at the local burger joint for a double cheeseburger and Cajun fries to eat while they watch hot dog eating contests on television. Never giving a thought to the real Spirit of the word of wisdom.
The bottom line is that before members criticize the First Presidency for creating a problem by not doing enough about the pandemic, they should take a look at their own behaviors and whether they are doing enough to protect against the much greater probabilities of heart disease, cancer, and car accidents.
JCS is a bit harsh, but he is right about one thing. Members tend to pick and choose what they think is a “problem” that the leaders are ignoring.
In my view, self assessment is typically far more productive than attempting to place blame or give accurate credit. How fine tuned is OUR ability to discern the correct path to be on. I wish I could say that is they way I always respond. I expect the adversary’s view had to be quite compelling in the war in heaven to draw away that many, especially when it seems there was a lot “in plain sight”. The “human factor” as I call it, tends to always lead us in the wrong direction.
These are great things questions. I think that answers are more complicated than it seems.
Most of the problems that are driving people out of the church come from leaders who are trying to micromanage the members’ lives. Leaders who want to control how many earnings someone has, what color shirt someone should wear to church, and whether they should have a beard. Things that have no basis in doctrine, and amount only to personal, or at most cultural preferences.
I think leaders should stick to actual doctrine and should not push cultural or personal agendas. The real problem is that cultural and personal agendas cannot be applied across the board to every individual life. When leaders try to do that, it causes problems for everyone.
It is a problem for any organization to train its members to always do what the leader says without any independent thought. This trains members to wait to be told what to do and to be afraid to act on their own. There will be a time when the leader is not available or otherwise able to address emergencies that come up, and the organization will face disaster because there is no one else capable of the thought and action required to fix the problem.
What could be worse than blaming the Lord for decisions made by the Q15? Because that’s exactly what RMN did in April of 2019 when he reversed the Nov 2015 Exclusion Policy. Remember what he said? The Brethren pleaded with the Lord for a change after seeing the effects of the policy. Of course, it’s all called “revelation” and part of the “revelatory process” instead of what it really was: a mistake of a couple of over-zealous Q15 members.
A lot of profound questions that I deal with on a regular basis running my own business. Part of commanding allegiance and staying in power as a leader requires good timing and effective persuasion about the question of who takes credit during the good times and who takes the blame during the bad times. Sometimes times get so bad that no amount of blame-shifting by a leader can save his or her face. But I’m always surprised at how effective blame-shifting can be. Trump put this to the test on a daily basis during his presidency. He loses the election and blames non-existent voter fraud. It was astounding how much people believed him and continue to treat him as a victim. Trump tested the boundaries of blame-shifting to a dangerous extent.
Consider this claim: The Church has a leadership problem.
You can object that a lot of men get leadership callings. You can object that men, or some of them, are climbing up through the ranks, from bishop to SP to some other calling (mission president, temple president, area 70 and so forth) right up to being called as a GA. But how much scope for initiative and true leadership do these many callings actually have? Advancement is based not on showing initiative or running successful projects but mostly on just being good foot soldiers, following policy directives, following the Handbook, and not questioning anything. In other words, the Church system fosters a certain kind of leader: a non-leader leader. In other words, a follower, not a leader. That might work manageably well when things are rolling along just fine. But when there is a challenge or crisis, followers have no experience and no incentive to show initiative, to identify and solve problems, to rock the boat when it needs to be rocked.
At the highest level, we don’t even know what most leaders do. There is no published org chart that shows the particular responsibilities of this or that apostle or Seventy. I’m sure there is one internally, we just don’t get to see it. From time to time, an assignment or title gets mentioned, an apostle on this or that committee or some Seventy who serves as Director of this or that unit. So Uchtdorf has some sort of responsibility over curriculum. They may be good or ineffective leaders in those assignments … but how would we even know? That’s a good strategy for deflecting blame and/or avoiding a rival subordinate from getting any credit: just not letting the general membership know what specific leaders are actually responsible for.
What @joshua h said.
I know I’m too hard on the Q15. But you know what? They claim to speak for God. They ask us to do what they say even when it comes at the expense of friendships and family relationships and our own personal authority and development. They ask us to give them 10% of our income and huge chunks of time. They ask women to stay home and make babies and they ask men to be the sole providers for their families and devote tons of their limited spare time to leadership positions.
I feel perfectly comfortable asking a lot of them because they ask a lot of me. And I don’t think it’s unfair to apply a pretty high standard because it’s the standard they invite. I don’t expect them to be perfect but I do expect a lot more transparency and humility than I see.
So yeah, I am going to blame them for things that result from their actions (and in many cases inactions) even if they inherited a lot of their problems. Their refusal to ever repudiate anything other leaders did because it would undermine their *own* authority is also their own fault. They aren’t trying to protect past prophets (I’m a Mormon = Satan, after all), they are trying to protect themselves.
Dave B’s point about having followers rather than leaders is spot on.
In his famous leadership book Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about the window and the mirror. When things go well, great leaders look out the window to explain success. Mediocre leaders look in the mirror to find ways to take credit for it. When things go wrong, great leaders look in the mirror to self assess what they could change and do better. Mediocre leaders look out the window to find things to blame that paint them as the victim of these external factors.
If I look at accepting blame/taking credit through the lens of parenting, I begin so see how important it is to do both, *but only to a certain point.” After which, we have to focus on the fact that a child is his/her own person whose autonomy should be respected and encouraged. Whose questions *are legitimate,* and deserve truthful answers. In other words, it’s not about leaders preserving power, it’s about letting the members grow.
“…it’s about letting the members grow.”
…keeping in mind that only members who are still living will grow and members who are on ventilators are probably too busy trying to breathe to do much growing.
But my husband just called me with some good news. In TX where Gov. Abbot has decreed — despite being infected himself and on expensive monoclonal antibody treatment that Texans are probably paying for — that schools can’t protect kids with mask mandates, one school fighting the might of the state has made masks not a matter of good school citizenship but part of the dress code.
Fabulous comment….just exactly what I needed to hear after a very rough conversation with an extended family member. You really summed up my jumbled thoughts on why the church *today* can be unhealthy. Thank you for your insight.
My assessment of the present (and recent past) Church leadership is they lack vision. We are in a world of great opportunity. Yet, in developing countries, the Church is alienating more people than it is impressing. Priorities seem askew. Church leaders have not clearly delineated a mission s that is in line with the core message of Christ: love thy neighbor.
Alice – just for the record, I wasn’t talking about vaccines. I’m all for them.
Ruth, sorry I misunderstood. Glad to think we’re on the same page with respect to the vaccines.
Holland just gave a talk to BYU staff “toe the party line” and not be critical of Church doctrine and leaders. I guess the Q15 want no blame, just credit. Holland used to be categorized as a possible moderate. That just went out the window. Strange talk from an ex-university president. The Church continues to take one step forward and 2 steps back.