Accepting the challenge

The heavy responsibility of making decisions

After the Iowa caucuses dust up, a couple of colleagues pressed me on the ethical responsibilities of the vendor at issue. What obligation, they asked, did the vendor have in telling party officials that it was unreasonable to deliver an app in 2 months, and at a cost of $60,000? Should the vendor have refused? What are the obligations of those who accept the challenge to deliver?

In hindsight, it seems clear that the vendor had some responsibility, and failed in it. But is that always the case? And when did that responsibility attach? During the “pitch” that inevitably led to the app’s development? During the week before launch when it seemed like there might be a problem? On election night? And what about the counterfactual, what would have happened if the vendor had refused entirely?

Candidly, I don’t know the answers to these questions (and they may not be knowable). But my colleagues’ question reveals wisdom that bears mentioning here. Those involved, both on the vendor side and the side of the party official side, had some obligation to explore the risks of their failure, and to involve individuals or organizations who could have provided them with expertise. We are all human, and make mistakes. But if our professional position puts others at risk, we own the responsibility of our actions. Leadership demands a willingness to take risks. Leadership also demands a willingness to acknowledge and accept responsibility. And if you can’t, you shouldn’t be at the table in the first place.