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The Buck Stops Here: The Servant Leader's Guide to High Performance

Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, famously had a sign on his desk that read "The Buck Stops Here," capturing the essence of ultimate responsibility in leadership. Truman's words and actions during his time in office, including consequential decisions like the use of atomic bombs to end World War II and the desegregation of the armed forces, illustrate a leader who was willing to make difficult choices without shirking responsibility. Truman's decisive approach to leadership—willingness to make tough choices without shirking responsibility—serves as an important example for modern leaders navigating a complex, ever-changing landscape.

Jason Tuschen, a former Navy SEAL and leadership development expert, recently expanded on this concept during an episode of Instill Culture Lab:

"If the organization's not better, I screwed up, I failed as a leader."

Why Should Today's Leaders Care?

In an era characterized by rapid technological advances and social shifts, embodying a 'buck stops here' mentality has never been more crucial. When leaders take full responsibility for their teams and actions, they create an environment of trust and empowerment. This leads to high-performing teams and fosters innovation and long-term sustainability.

Take my experience with a group of interns. They messed up a project, but instead of blaming them, I shouldered the responsibility (and a hefty rebuke from the boss!). The outcome? Their sense of ownership and commitment increased exponentially. I’ve been in the opposite situation with a supervisor who couldn’t wait to blame the rest of us, and it left us deflated and unmotivated. This real-life example aligns with what Tuschen posits: Take ownership, and your team will follow suit.

Continuity, Succession, and the Future

Jason also stressed the need to 'future-proof' your leadership. 

"If the person replacing me isn't better, doesn't do a better job than I did, I failed to prepare them properly." 

This isn't just about training but about instilling a vision and values that perpetuate organizational excellence.

Transparency and Crisis Management

A less-discussed yet crucial facet of servant leadership is the art of crisis management. Tuschen advises leaders to 'talk it out,' emphasizing the power of open communication. But it's not just about solving immediate issues; it's about creating a culture of agility and adaptability. One useful framework that aligns with this perspective is the O.O.D.A (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop. Originating from military strategy, this model calls for continuous observation of the situation, orientation to understand the context, decisive planning, and swift action. The cycle doesn't end with action; it's a loop because you go back to observing and adjusting as the situation evolves. In a transparent culture, leaders and team members can navigate crises effectively using the O.O.D.A loop, turning potential stumbling blocks into stepping stones."

Three Practices to Elevate Your Leadership

  • The Truman Checklist: Keep a checklist of core responsibilities you're accountable for and share it with your team. Update it regularly to show that accountability isn't a one-off but an ongoing commitment.

  • 360-Degree Feedback Loops: Create channels for feedback from all organizational levels. This enables a form of shared responsibility that enriches your leadership and elevates the team.

  • Hire for Character: Make character, ethics, and values non-negotiable in your hiring process. When you show that you prioritize these qualities, it encourages others to do the same.

Building a Culture of High Performance with Instill

The principles outlined here resonate deeply with the Culture Operating System™ by Instill. Integrating AI technology, the system aligns with the core tenets of servant leadership—psychological safety, trust, and innovation—to develop high-performing teams. Transformation doesn't happen overnight; it requires committed leaders who serve more than they are served.


The philosophy behind "The Buck Stops Here" isn't about holding all the power but about redistributing it to benefit everyone. When leaders assume ultimate responsibility—both for successes and setbacks—they model a form of leadership that inspires their teams to go above and beyond. So, when the buck stops with you, you set in motion a cycle of empowerment, accountability, and high performance that lifts everyone up.


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