Responsibility Lessons from the U.S. Secret Service

Even though we hate to admit our mistakes, it's a powerful thing to do. Cover-ups, however well-intentioned, are usually a disastrous choice. Just look at the U.S. Secret Service fiasco...

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #333

When you were little, your parents and teachers told you that someday you'd be a grown-up, and that grown-ups were more mature than kids. Grown-ups take responsibility, put in an honest day's work for an honest day's wage, deal with each other with consideration and open minds, stand by their word, and stuff like that. At least, that's what they told me. I'm sure in the back room, they were doubled over in laughter at my youthful naiveté.


Because none of it—none—is true.

This past week the head of the U.S. Secret Service Julia Pierson was being grilled by Congress. The Secret Service's job is to protect the President. It's their first, foremost, and primary job. But they had a little "oops." They let a guy with a knife get pretty far into the White House before catching him. (Apparently, the White House doesn't have the same kind of motion detecting burglar alarm that my apartment does.)

The head of the Secret Service stood before Congress and said, "Mistakes were made." I'm so relieved to hear that. Aren't you? I didn't realize that letting armed intruders into the White House was a mistake. I thought it was the way things were supposed to work.

Of course, the passive voice is masterful! Had she used the active voice to say "I made a mistake," I might have thought that perhaps she set up inadequate employee screening. Or that Secret Service policies and procedures were broken or cumbersome. Or that she didn't implement oversight, or training, or cultivate a culture of excellence and pride in the work at her organization.

But since she said "Mistakes were made," in a passive voice, I realize that there's nothing she could have done to avoid this massive breach. My heart swells in admiration at this sterling role model of leadership. I can't imagine a more competent, inspiring leader. ;

Cover-Ups Don't Work

When you don't deliver on a promise you've made, a product you were supposed to create, or a job you were supposed to do, everyone knows it. It isn't a secret. Yet our first instinct is to hide.

"No, Mommy, I didn't take the cookies!" we say, as crumbs fall out of our mouths. "Mistakes were made, but not by me" worked when you were 7 because the grown-ups were being polite. They didn't actually believe you. Mommy saw the crumbs. And today, your workgroup knows your deliverable didn't deliver.

Excuses—especially obvious ones—just make things worse. People often forgive failure. People virtually never forgive cover-ups.

Nor should they. When you screw up, you put us at risk once. But screw-ups happen. We get that and we can forgive. But when you cover it up, we can't trust you to recognize and fix future screw-ups. A cover-up tells us you're putting us at risk forever.

So what's the alternative?


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.