Leadership Thought of the Day: Who’s to Blame?

Jake Wilder
2 min readJan 18, 2022

Great leaders look for systems, not scapegoats.

Photo by Lukas from Pexels

Something goes wrong and what do we do? We look for who screwed up. Whether through bad intentions or shear incompetence, we like having a clear reason for why something bad happened.

It reinforces our view that we have agency in the world. We talk about individual responsibility and accountability because the alternative is scary. If we don’t have someone to blame, it means that we’re not in control. Suddenly the world feels much more unpredictable.

The good news is that it’s easy to do. It’s not difficult to find someone to blame. The bad news is that it doesn’t help.

Blaming an accident on a distracted machine operator doesn’t improve future operations. To do that, we need to look beyond the individual and focus on the system. We need to ask: Why was he distracted? How can we improve people’s focus for the future?

If we settle for a distracted operator, we stop digging. The solution — disciplining one person — provides the illusion of improvement but fails to address the fundamental problem. The issue eventually resurfaces and there’s increased pressure to deal with the offending party. Over time, we rely more and more on finding and punishing culprits than dealing with the cause of our issues.



Jake Wilder

I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.