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?