Command responsibility (Part 2) PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 07 January 2015 13:18



It is said that when Harry Truman was president of the US he had a sign on his desk that said “The buck stops here.”      To fully appreciate the meaning of the sign we have to understand that there is an American colloquialism that refers to “passing the buck” which means passing on to someone else the blame for anything that goes wrong. Truman’s sign was simply saying that as president of his country he was ultimately responsible when things don’t go right. This was an expression of identifying with the principle of command responsibility.

The principle has a military background but has been adapted into a civilian context. It simply accepts that in a department/office/agency there is a hierarchy of  positions that is vertically linear, each level with supervisory power over the immediate lower level and responsibility for how this lower level accomplishes its functions. At some point responsibility over what has not turned out well cannot be passed on to a higher level, and that is where “the buck stops.”

It takes strength of character to own up responsibility for something that one is not directly responsible for. But  that is what command responsibility is all about. You may not have done it but people who answer to you did and they botched up the job and you were not on top of the situation.   This is not simply “scapegoating” but a call for leaders to exercise a stronger sense of accountability at one’s position.

After the Sept 9 (2013) attack on our city Nur Misuari disclaimed that he had anything to do with the attack, that it was decided and carried  out on his own by Javier Malik, a subordinate in Misuari’s organization. The claim  may be true but under command responsibility Misuari is still answerable for the decisions and actions of Malik.

One challenge that the principle of command responsibility makes to a leader is the care in his choices of subordinate, for whose actions the leader  will be held accountable. The subordinate  should- must- subscribe to the same principles and vision as  the leader so they work together in harness and with cooperation.

This is not always  easy to carry out because of such practices as horse trading in politics and the deeply rooted value of utang na loob in our Filipino culture. We need not go into these in details.

The difference between our culture and that in other countries  is evident in some news items we come across. An example is that of what the official overseeing the shipping industry in South Korea did after the sinking  of the ferry carrying several school children on a day excursion and the death of many of them. The official immediately resigned.    Could we have expected the same thing to happen in the Philippines?