Friday, February 13, 2009

In praise of... taking responsibility for things

Here's my confession, I used to work for Sir Fred Goodwin. For a year I worked in retail banking, at the height of the consumer credit race before the crunch. Debt was peddled like free money. On some scale blame lies with me and people like me who identified lead for other people to sell 'credit' to. We worked there. We got paid (not much) for it. And older colleagues bemoaned the fall of banking compared to the old respectable banking of 30+ years ago where it was a priviledge to meet a bank manager. Yesterday Sir Fred, hailed by our bosses as a hero bank in 2002 offered some sense of apology:
"There is a profound and unqualified apology for all the distress that has been caused... What I'm concerned about is that it is just too simple if you want to blame it all on me. If you want to blame it all on me and close the book, that will get the job done very quickly, but it does not go anywhere close to the cause of all of this."
Perhaps for legal reasons, perhaps because people don't like to take responsibility it's sort of I'm sorry but without really taking responsibility. Contrast Josiah Bartlett:
"I was wrong. I was. I was just, I was wrong. Come on, we know that. Lots of times we don't know what right and wrong is. But lots of time we do. And come on, this is one. I may not have had sinister intent at the outset, but there were plenty of opportunities for me to make it right. No one in government takes responsibility for anything any more. We foster, we obfuscate, we rationalize. "Everybody does it." That's what we say. So we come to occupy a moral safe house where everyone's to blame so no one's guilty. I'm to blame. I was wrong."
It's a problem in our society that we don't like to take the responsibility. We want the potential profits of risk, but it has to cut both ways.

I see it in young students being offered responsibility, wrestling with whether they should take what is offered to them... they want someone to tell them the right thing to do, others are wary of acting to please those who will tell them what to do. Somehow they have to take responsibility, to make a decision and make the most of it, and take the flack if it was the wrong call. We can't guarentee things will work out ok and we're not required to. Things can fail. There's permission to fail - the ridiculous thing is when we wont take responsibility. Usually today that means Big Names quit their jobs, which also feels like dodging the issue. Granted sometimes its a good move, surely there are times to say - I screwed up, let's move forward...

Problem is when everything is about how well we perform, admiting to getting things wrong or to failing is bad for us. Sin's a disaster. Ruinous. By contrast a world of grace means that there are consequences for wrongs and also the possibility of restoration. We can stand up and take responsibility. We can repent. We can be forgiven and start again. That's if you believe in grace. If you don't have grace then "God help you if you take responsibility...."


  1. Anyone see Obama saying a few days ago that he was sorry and that he had got it wrong? Something about not vetting someone carefully enough.

  2. Apparently, our dear leader, Gordon Brown is studying the tapes of Obama's Mea Culpa. I don't think Brown has it in him, but it would be nice to see him take some responsibility.

  3. In a society obsessed with "rights" we seem to have forgotten that with rights come responsibilities too. Coming from the French root meaning to pledge it suggests being made to account for oneself. Regrettably, we are also in a blame society which means that saying sorry implies liability and this can lead to penalty. So few will say sorry and mean it. Josiah Bartlett is a fictional character after all...any reckon George W. (or Tony Blair) will ever really say sorry for the Iraq war?

  4. Tragic to have to turn to fiction for a great apology...