By Brad Thomason, CPA
Many years ago I attended some sort of event where the keynote speaker was a retired Army general. I don’t recall what the event was. But I remember clearly what his theme was.
The broad topic was being in a position of directing others, and understanding what the possibilities and limitations of leadership were.
But it was a detail he mentioned that really stuck with me. Like a lot of profound and important ideas, it was obvious at once just how fundamental it was. Yet I had never heard anyone put it in quite the words he used; nor had I ever quite formulated it the same way for myself.
I have found it to be a useful thing to remember. I thought I would share it with you today.
What the general said was this: you can delegate authority, but you can’t delegate responsibility.
Even if you tap someone else to help you out with an undertaking, even if you give that person broad latitude to act and make decisions, the thing which you can never transfer is responsibility for the outcome. If the outcome was your responsibility in minute-one of the story, it remains yours all the way until the end.
This is at once a cautionary statement about who you delegate authority to, and how closely you monitor their actions and enforce accountability. But more than that, it is a rigid reminder that bringing in other people cannot be the source of excuses for things which fail. It’s a cop-out you can’t let yourself consider.
In the personal finance world, people often engage advisors to help navigate the terrain. Under the right circumstances, this can be a good idea. But those right circumstances form situations in which the person who’s doing the engaging is working with the advisor as a peer or even a supervisor/manager in order to allow the professional’s input to enter the equation and enhance the other positive things which are already going on.
When the nature of the exchange is that the retiree capitulates control to the advisor, does whatever is proposed without thought or challenge, and ultimately seeks to blame the advisor when things don’t go well, then you do not have those right circumstances. You have a dysfunctional mess that is not good, and maybe disastrous.
To make matters worse, it may in fact be the incompetence of a poor advisor which led to the downfall. But in the end, that’s a secondary fact. Because the primary fact is that responsibility for a successful retirement was always yours, and only yours. If you invited the source of failure into the story, then the resulting failure is still on you.
You can delegate some of the job to others. You can seek the counsel of experts so that their contributions can add to your own, and make the process go more smoothly. But in the final analysis those are aspects of authority. Not responsibility.
Because while you can freely delegate the one, you can’t divest the other. Since you are always going to be responsible for the final outcome, it is best to remember that along the way. Failure to do so creates an illusion of shared obligation, and may create the reality of an unhealthy state of dependency. Neither will do you any good.
Retirement success is a big undertaking. Prudent selection of aid and assistance is fine. Just don’t forget who’s in charge. Because the universe is not going to forget who’s responsible.
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