A painted glass sign inscribed “The Buck Stops Here” sat on Harry Truman's desk during his presidency. The expression originated from poker in which a buckhorn-handled knife was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the individual did not wish to deal, he could pass the responsibility by passing the “buck” to another. Truman believed the president must make the decisions and accept responsibility for those decisions. The buck — the responsibility — stopped with him.
Being responsible and accountable are essential for leadership. As a Marine officer, this principle was a mantra, thus I'd like to think I was worthy of command.
This summer our family hosted two lovely European students traveling via an international education company specializing in educational programs and cultural exchange. I made an inquiry to one of the company's supervisors relative to an issue that merited attention. After three attempts trying to find resolution, I heard nothing from the company. I thought this unusual, since this was our third year as host parents.
At that point, it wasn't difficult to determine that due to a lack of accountability and responsibility, the company would eventually implode. I'm convinced that the leadership of an organization determines its fate. Individual effort becomes counterproductive and atrophies under the guise of defunct leadership.
I grew up during the Cold War and experienced the evolution of détente, an easing of the geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It was a time when Ronald Reagan expressed that Americans are citizens of the world; our deportment is a depiction of American culture.
“The Ugly American,” by Lederer and Burdick, published in 1959, stated, “The average American is the best ambassador a country can have.”
One of the subliminal purposes of the particular international education company I'm writing about today is to provide intimate experiences for foreign students by immersing them with host families, thereby providing a positive American image. However the company became its own worst enemy relative to portraying a positive American image.
During its concluding event here, one of its administrators was involved in a boisterous altercation with a teacher of a participating country. Shoving ensued. The situation escalated when the administrator's husband became involved, suggesting that he and the teacher go outside and fight. This particular issue was the tip of the iceberg relative to my evaluation of the company.
This behavior took place in the presence of host families and students. My sensibilities are not that pronounced, as I've experienced debauchery in every hellhole in the Pacific. However, I didn't expect to see this behavior at one of our local churches, where this event was being held.
As a young senator, John F. Kennedy mailed a copy of “The Ugly American” to each of his U.S. Senate colleagues. Kennedy argued for a program that would enhance America's international image. He was aware that negative stereotypes of Americans were counterproductive. When he became president in 1961, he established the Peace Corps to oppose this ugly American image. I suggest the hierarchy of the educational company read the book.
Accepting responsibility and owning one's shortcomings are the first steps toward righting this ship. I've heard nothing from the company about the debacle that occurred under their watch. Burying your head in the sand does not make one better.
I'm sensitive about an American image. In Vietnam our efforts imploded because we failed to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. In many cases we were the ugly American. It all came down to leadership.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.