Ever been wrongly accused of something beyond your control? Did your boss have your back when everyone was pointing the finger at you? Have you taken the heat for someone who was doing the job that you asked them to do?
That was the situation in which hard-working, brilliant Secretary of War Edwin Stanton found himself in 1862, one year into the Civil War. Unfortunately, Stanton didn’t have as many friends in Congress as General George McClellan, a popular Washington social butterfly.
On the other hand, Stanton was fortunate enough to have Abraham Lincoln as a boss, who recognized his talent and work ethic, and was willing to step in front of him when he was under fire.
McClellan’s grand plan was to land on the coast of Virginia, march to Richmond, take the capital, and end the war. The problem with the plan was that McClellan was not aggressive. He blew one golden opportunity after another, and his army stalled. Eventually, he gave up the campaign.
But not before he laid the blame on Stanton. Both in the press and to his friends in Congress, McClellan falsely claimed that Stanton refused to give his army the supplies and troops needed to be successful. In fact, McClellan’s army outnumbered the Confederates by a huge margin and supply lines were never a problem.
Nevertheless, the fury descended on Stanton for the failed campaign. Lincoln knew the ultimate responsibility was his own. He had signed off on McClellan’s plan, and hired both McClellan and Stanton. Lincoln also knew that he had to take the heat off Stanton, or lose one of his best people.
So he did it in public – and with style. He traveled to the steps of Capitol Hill and gave a public press conference on the matter.
In a speech before a large crowd, Lincoln told the audience, “The Secretary of War is not to blame for not giving when he had none to give….I believe he is a brave and able man, and I stand here…to take upon myself what has been charged on the Secretary of War.”[i]
Lincoln shifted the weight off Stanton’s shoulders onto his own so Stanton could continue to do his job. He also didn’t place any blame on McClellan, which he could’ve easily done. The irony was that Lincoln drew nothing but praise from the speech for defending his employees, earning him great respect among many in Congress and the press.
This one move by Lincoln may have won the Civil War. Together, Stanton and Lincoln revised the master plan for defeating the Confederacy. A plan executed successfully by generals other than McClellan.
Lincoln demonstrated that leaders can take responsibility for all of their decisions no matter how far-reaching. Don’t pass the buck, hang your people out to dry, or treat them like sacrificial lambs. Although your subordinates may suffer consequences at your hand for their own decisions, they will feel secure and confident in executing your plan (and will likely excel) if you are willing to take ultimate responsibility.
Was Lincoln right in defending Stanton this way? Can Lincoln’s actions still be replicated in today’s corporate settings? I’d appreciate your thoughts.
For more on how Lincoln assumed blame for his subordinates’ actions, see Trust Encourages the Communication that Ensures Success.