The Absence of Blame

“Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who’ll get the blame.” – Bertrand Russell

I’ve been an entrepreneur most of my life, ever since I started my first real estate firm in Cincinnati in 1976. A lot of the time things went right and it was smiles all around. But sometimes things went wrong, and I must admit I was quick to cast blame in my younger years. 

I expected close to perfection from my real estate agents and employees, just like I’d seen my dad, Chubby, expect from his. When my agents slipped up, I was sure to let them know about it. Mostly calmly. Hopefully professionally. But typically, sternly. At the time, I erroneously believed that sternness was the way to portray that I was the boss and “you better listen to me.” 

Then I came across a quote by American author, John Burroughs, who said…

“A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.”

Needless to say, it had a profound impact on me. I realized that my agents’ mistakes were actually my own. After all, I was the one who hired them, right? And I was the one who trained them, right? 

Maybe I was to blame for putting a “wrong person on the bus.” Perhaps I didn’t train them well enough. Whatever the reason, over time I made a transition from blaming others to blaming myself for what went wrong in my company. After all, the buck stops at the boss. 

Truthfully, it was one of the toughest adjustments I have ever had to make in business. Taking total accountability for every flub and blunder within my company was a VERY humbling experience. It took me years to fully embrace the concept.

Then, after what felt like an eternity of “falling on the sword” for everything that went awry, it started to wear me thin. Was Burroughs wrong? What seemed like sage advice a decade ago now felt like a life sentence of constantly pointing at myself in the mirror whenever anything went wrong, even if it was not my fault and I had done everything under the sun to prevent it. 

Ironically, it was at about this time that I came across this ancient Chinese proverb…

“He who blames others has a long way to go on his journey. He who blames himself is halfway there. He who blames no one (including himself) has already arrived.”

Previously I thought I had reached the “final destination” with regard to the blame game. As it turns out, I was only halfway there. After years of blaming myself for everything that went wrong, I decided to take a different approach in light of this “blame nobody” wisdom.

I stopped raking myself over the coals when things went wrong. But there’s an important distinction – that doesn’t mean I didn’t reflect on problems and try to make them right. 

After all, without learning from the mishaps that befall us, there is no growth. Without a level of accountability, we don’t learn from our mistakes, or the mistakes of others.

Therefore, I didn’t stop holding myself accountable. As CEO, I was ultimately responsible for the success of the business. But I did stop criticizing and blaming myself when things weren’t right. I simply recognized the need for corrective action, figured out what to do, took the action, and moved on. 

The change for me was eradicating from my mind any thought of blame, any hint of guilt… with one exception. If the problem was the result of my lack of attention, or trying, I 100% blamed myself. There is no excuse for failure caused by laziness of body or mind.   

If it’s the result of laziness or carelessness, blame is appropriate. I can correct this myself, and if I find I cannot with those around me, they need to be taken “off the bus”. 

I often talk about my father, Chubby. He passed down numerous life lessons to me over the years. One of my favorites is, “Don’t look back, you are not going that way.” That simple phrase has empowered me to not focus on what happened last week, yesterday, or even five minutes ago; other than to learn from it. That includes casting blame.  

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Magdalena Neuner may have said it better: “I always try to do my best so I can never blame myself for anything.”

Think about it this way… 


Give it your all, act with a good heart, and you earn the right to live in the absence of blame.

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