Danforth: Making distinctions between responsibility and blame

Dave Danforth19.TIF

A strange thing happened at the opening of the year 2021 at Aspen's Music Tent. The summer season was still a long way off. But in the midst of the frigid winter of 2020-2021, COVID vaccinations in the tent's drive-thru parking lot hit town.

And the man who could claim credit was none other than the same individual who many felt punted on the entire issue: Donald J. Trump. The earliest to get their shots at the tent did so in the closing days of the Trump administration, so Trump could claim credit for a feat he really didn't want to manage.

An early issue was the availability of vaccines, and how to get them on a regular schedule. The Aspen crew adroitly set itself up as an "incident management center," attracting notice and credibility with vaccine providers. This was more than a mob of ski bums setting up shop.

By making appointments online, they avoided the snarls that come with actual phone contact. There were rarely lines because shots were spaced about 15 minutes apart. Patrons could roll up sleeves but stay in their cars.

Patients were told to return in exactly three weeks for a second shot -- same time, same place. Trump was able to claim a prompting role in the vaccine rollout, since it happened while he was still in office. But he flunked the public relations part when in public view.

Asked whether he took responsibility for a halting rollout, Trump denied blame. This was a matter for the states, he insisted. Deflecting responsibility during the COVID wake-up call was a key issue in the 2020 presidential elections, most analysts agree.

By not understanding the distinction between "responsibility" and "blame," the then-president put a nation in harm's way. The difference is a key lesson for leaders, say management experts. It starts with the military manta.

If it happens on your watch you're responsible. We'll figure out the blame part down the road (or leave it to voters). It's a little like the Titanic.

The watchmen were a little tardy in spotting the iceberg. But the captain, as was the habit then, liked to speed up when the weather looked clear to hedge his schedule. Blaming Trump for the weight of the pandemic was blame waiting to happen.

If he'd have recognized the trouble on his watch, he might have been reelected. Then he could move on to other issues, such as presidential management and general likability. The distinction is clearest in the 2008 presidential contest.

The nation had just fallen off a cliff with the failure of the investment bank Lehman Brothers. But voters weren't urged to blame either (outgoing) George W. Bush or (incoming) Barack Obama because both administrations agreed to a hands-on approach, even if experts weren't sure where to place blame or responsibility.

Not all leaders prepare themselves to confront the moment when they hit the stage. They seem clueless, when often, there is no cover for general cluelessness. Take Elon Musk.

The Tesla and SpaceX -entrepreneur is credited now as the world's richest individual. But he still appears unwilling to plead overall loss at sea. He just bid some £44 billion for Twitter.

He's already been scolded by regulators for inappropriately influencing the stock price of his companies. But last week he issued a bizarre tweet explaining that he's unsure about how corrupted Twitter's account list is by bots and fakes. So he put his bid on "hold" after already signing a contract with a billion-dollar penalty.

But in the end, he claims, all is on schedule. Is Musk trying to depress the value of Twitter stock so he can negotiate a late-in-the-game discount? Twitter's still a public company, so millions in shareholder wealth is at issue.

Musk may be clueless about what he now thinks about his bid for Twitter. But he doesn't know what to say, though he's surely got to say something. Musk may not have determined yet how much responsibility he has for any mix-up in Twitter's value, though the stock is taking a plunge in price while he ruminates.

He's more likely to control the responsibility he takes than the blame.

The writer ([email protected]) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and his column appears here on Sundays.