Field Notes

Posted on Mar 30, 2012 | 12 Comments

Can responsibility be made commensurate with authority?  Sí, se puede. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Peter Drucker crossed paths with a lot of remarkable people. One of them was civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez, who will be honored tomorrow during Cesar Chavez Day, an official holiday in California.

After a meeting between Drucker and Chavez in the early 1980s, the United Farm Workers president and an aide discussed some of the topics that the men had covered. (A transcript of their conversation is available in the Drucker Archives.) Among other things, Chavez recalled, Drucker advised him to “keep volunteers working and make a lot of demands on them.” The two also talked quite a bit about the steady flow of immigration from Mexico and how the UFW “could have a great influence” on the issue.

But one particularly crucial exchange concerned how to manage a decentralized organization with a lot of people in the field (both literally and figuratively). Chavez recounted Drucker’s advice as follows: “He said it was dangerous to hand out authority without responsibility, that if we decentralize we have to make people responsible and accountable. Otherwise. . . . it would be chaos.”

It’s a lesson that extends well beyond the UFW. Who, after all, hasn’t seen a leader (whether a toxic boss or a Third World dictator) who asserted his authority without exercising responsibility? And who among us hasn’t been held accountable for situations beyond our control—made responsible where we had no real authority?

For Drucker, few principles were more sacrosanct: “Whoever claims authority thereby assumes responsibility,” he wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “But whoever assumes responsibility thereby claims authority. The two are different sides of the same coin.”

In Concept of the Corporation, Drucker was even more blunt: “Authority without responsibility is tyranny, and responsibility without authority is impotence.”

Where in government or business do you see the most dangerous mismatches between authority and responsibility?

12 Comments

  1. George L. Williams
    March 30, 2012

    The Congress of the United States during the period: 2000-2006; the Defense Department under Rumsfeld; and the President, who abdicated power to the Vice President, causing chaos in the administration of the Irac War. The list is long for the sorry performance of the federal government during the first eight years of this century. Most were directly attributable to the disconnect between authority and responsibility. The country is experiencing immense difficulty trying to right itself from the debacle, which culminated in an implosion of the national economy.

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  2. Richard B Mann PhD
    March 30, 2012

    This is a common problem, but worse in government than in business. As head of a department or business, I am responsible and take the hit for my mistakes. This has been my experience. However, sometimes a BOD can limit authority but still assign responsibility in areas for which I am not given authority. In government, because of various laws, authority is denied, but responsibility is assessed. However, even though a person is responsible, he or she , cannot be fired for serious mistakes. One area that I found particularly annoying was having to accept secretaries, assistants, and associates already as part of my unit. Some were upset at having a new boss and subtly sabotaged programs or made it difficult to accomplish the required mission. In business I always insisted that all former subordinates were transferred or fired so I could hire only those who would be faithful to me.

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  3. Mike Grayson
    March 30, 2012

    The most dangerous mismatch between authority and responsibility lies with the government, and their eagerness to exert authority over fiscal matters, but their complete lack of responsibility when it comes to cleaning up their mistakes. They continue to print more money and devalue the dollar, rather than making hard choices. The American citizen must operate their household with a budget, but Congress continues to ignore, and politicize, their responsibility in this area.

    A business that ran their budget with this degree of arrogance, and lack of responsibility, would cease to exist in very short order.

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  4. Can responsibility be made commensurate with authority? – Peter Drucker’s interesting views « The world is too small? or Is it?
    March 30, 2012

    [...] : Field Notes , dated 30th March,2012, the Drucker Exchange Rate this: Share this:EmailPrintLinkedInDiggLike [...]

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  5. Maverick 18
    March 31, 2012

    The holocaust was commited by troops who felt they were “only following orders” and not responsible for their actions. The General(s) in charge of Abu Ghraib denied responsibility on the basis that she (they) had not authorized the torturing of prisoners. Mismatches of authority and responsibility in business pale by comparison.

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  6. Theodore Radamaker
    March 31, 2012

    President Obama has simply self-asserted his authority in numerous ways, including the all-important authority for making war. He has not taken responsibility for his defeats and the loss of lives, both ours and theirs. What an awful example!

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  7. Robert
    March 31, 2012

    Authority of the U.S. government is granted by our Constitution. Every elected offical has sworn by oath to protect it, yet there are many examples of the executive branch usurping the powers granted. And yes, so has the Supreme Court. We the people have the ultimate responsibility to ensure that our elected officials represent us within the authority granted by the Constitution. The House of Representatives has the responsibility to check those who violate their oath, but have not used their authority to the extent that Congress is becoming nearly impotent.

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  8. Linda Fishman
    March 31, 2012

    There is an enormous and growing personal accountability gap in both business and government that is eroding the public’s trust, especially when things go wrong and no one in a high position is held personally responsible and suffers no consequences.

    It is indeed a paradox that corporations are treated as persons by our laws–yet the very structure of a corporation legally removes anyone from personal liability in civil matters. Corporations also have vast resources of public relations, law firms, insurance to cover errors of missteps of its officers.

    The federal government is in some ways worse because it is so large and so lacking in transparency that it is impossible to find out where or who made any mistake. It is almost impossible for a citizen to sue the government, and even for unclassified documents, there is an exception to the Freedom of Information Act for “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters” to protect internal deliberative processes.

    This lack of transparency and accountability has decreased trust in government and business to levels that endanger the functioning of our society and democracy.

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  9. Alba Patricia Valencia
    April 1, 2012

    The most dangerous mismatches between authority and responsibility we see when in government or business there are power. Also when there are low educative levels. Likewise, influence system and strength relations inside of the participants.

    Los desajustes más peligrosos entre la autoridad y la responsabilidad las vemos cuando en el gobierno o en los negocios hay poder. También cuando hay bajos niveles educativos. Así mismo, el sistema de influencia y las relaciones de fuerza al interior de los participantes.

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  10. The Feedback | The Drucker Exchange
    April 3, 2012

    [...] to Peter Drucker for counsel, he was told to make sure that his volunteers and employees had responsibilities in line with their authority. We asked our readers where, in government or business, they saw perilous mismatches between [...]

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  11. Antonio
    April 6, 2012

    An example of a dangerous mismatch between authority and responsibility is that of an outgoing official (e.g. president, mayor, etc.) who can critically influence the legislation, political environment, and public perception that the incumbent must endure (or less likely benefit from).

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  12. Mom, Could You Read This Post For Me? | The Drucker Exchange
    July 6, 2012

    [...] As we’ve noted, Peter Drucker considered authority without responsibility a recipe for “tyranny.” And Drucker saw children being coddled and indulged all over the world.  The youngsters raised under China’s one-child policy were an example. “Those kids are horribly spoiled,” Drucker observed in a 2001 interview. “That’s true in this country, too. When I look at what ten-year-olds expect to own, it’s unthinkable for my generation.” [...]

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