Nothing Should Trump Personal Accountability


February 25, 2010

As the Olympics are nearing the close, there is no shortage of drama.  By now, you’ve surely heard about the major blunder that involved Dutch speed skater Sven Kramer.  He cost himself the gold.

There, I said it.

As the story goes, Sven was skating the 10,000 meter race and was poised to win in record time.  He would surely have nailed the gold.  But, a little more than halfway through the race, Sven did not switch to the outside lane as he should have.  Sounds cut-and-dry, right?

The real drama is that his coach was motioning for him to take the inside lane.

Sven listened.  Sven was disqualified.

Sven is upset that he was disqualified and is blaming his coach.  The whole country is upset.  According to the New York Times,’Gerard Den Elt, a correspondent for the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, said: “It’s a national tragedy. It’s all anybody’s talking about. A few days ago our prime minister stepped down, but it’s off the front pages because it’s all about Sven Kramer.”

WHAT?  You’ve got to be kidding me!

I’m not cold hearted,but at what point are people going to take personal responsibility for their performance.  Yes, his coach told him to do something wrong.  But, he is an experienced athlete in this sport and has won many races.  He even paused before taking the coaches signal to move to the incorrect lane.  That tells me that he realized it was not correct but then did it anyway.

Situations like this arise every day in the business world.  People listen to managers, supervisors, coaches or others who guide them down the wrong path.  That’s how companies like Enron went under.

People need to take personal accountability for their performance.  They need to own their successes and their failures.

If you were told by your manager to do something you knew was wrong, would you do it?  Would you fear losing your job if you spoke up?  What  do you think?


  • After reading your well-written article, what person in their right mind would admit to doing something they knew was wrong? I’d love to hear these outlier stories but I ‘spec we won’t.

  • To be fair, he did apologize to the coach and said that both were at fault. I believe he was upset since it was right after the race and understand his frustration since he was doing it for a country that is speed skating crazy.

    Yes, he’s a train athlete, but in a speed skaters mind, they can’t think which lane to switch, they’re function on how fast they skate. It is up to the coaches to spot the skater to go make the switch, the time, and where is the opposition.

    In reality, the coach gets most of the blame, and Sven should of cool down and supported his coach right after.

  • You are totally right. he should just take resposablity of his decision and stop bothering everybody with it. Plus, living in the past is not going to male him better nor happier.

  • You’ve got to be kidding me! I’m the first one to endorse personal accountability, but this is a different situation. These athletes have been listening to their coaches for YEARS and have learned to do what they’re told. Kramer trusted his coach and did what he was told – and paid the price for it. No time to think and analyze – just do it.

    Having your boss tell you to do something is different. You can think, analyze, decide. When learning to do something potentially dangerous, e.g., flying, driving, diving, skiing, I always did what my instructor told me.

    As my flight instructor told me when I received my pilot’s license, “Now you can learn to fly without killing yourself or someone else.” There is a time to think for yourself, but not at the split second when your trusted mentor and coach is right there beside you.

  • Answering your question, I think that if my boss asked me to do something wrong I would not do it. In fact, I’ve never had a supervisor give me instructions that I felt were wrong (morally, legally, ethically) which leads me to believe it’s possible to operate successfully without doing wrong.

    That said, what is right and wrong is not always as clear-cut as we were taught as children.

  • Trisha, it’s the era of Nobody Is Ever Wrong.

    This is a really good article. It’s so true…the skater has ultimate responsibility…and he didn’t take it. Thanks for the pointer on this.

  • I have to agree with Barry, listening to a coach in the heat of competition and listening to your manager in the day to day office race are very different situations. I wouldn’t expect to follow a manager if I knew something was incorrect or worse but the reason athletes have coaches is to follow their guidance. A person is ultimately responsible for their own actions with that focus on speed on performance it is understandable he would listen to his coach after so many laps around the track.

  • I a little torn, because I agree somewhat with Barry’s and Karin’s comments, but you’re right – Sven was ultimately responsible.

    Whether it’s on the ice in competition or in the cubicle at the workplace — smart, bold decision-making comes from the emotional brain reacting to millions of computations based on experience and past mistakes.

    The rational be damned.

    He knew he what he should’ve done, regardless of the coach’s call.

  • I’m with you on this one, Trish. These athletes may have been listening to their coach for years and years – but THAT was their choice, too. You can’t decide to follow someone, and then complain where they took you.

    No, it’s not always clear-cut what the path should be, but don’t blame others when you ultimately choose with path to take.

  • I tend to have my own drive and intelligence about things. But I’ve learned my “mama’s and mangers” often trump me in experience. And that with managers, if you do a good job for them, they sincerely care. I learned this when I made a move at Dell that cost me my career. I took a promotion that my manager advised me against, and it was my downfall. I’m sorry, but I will listen to my managers and coaches.

    I guess if it’s that much instinctly against the game or what’s right, I feel instinct is always right and choose to walk in integrity/by the bible. If that’s the case, you hope to have time to spend in a “fierce conversation.” Unfortunately, in this case, there was no time. He chose to listen to his coach who should’ve known better if he is a good coach. Since he didn’t, he should simply be fired. Hopefully, this guy will have another chance with a coach that trumps him in experience. Maybe that’s the key- can coaches truly trump an Olympian athelete? If not, then I guess the atheletes do need to have some independent thought…

    • Thanks to each of you whether you agree with me or disagree. We always learn more when we share our ideas and reasoning.
      @Tracy- thanks for pointing out that Sven did apologize. I neglected to mention that and I’m sure the passion of the moment made his reaction what it was.

      @Arthur- I’m with you on not living in the past. It won’t change the outcome, will it?

      @Barry- Wow, hit a nerve. Just teasing. I’m glad to hear the other side. And, while I actually agree with most of what you said, I do disagree on the point that Sven did not have time to analyze or think about his situation. In the video, it clearly shows that he moved to the outer lane (where he knew he should have been). To me, this demonstrates that he did think about it. Thanks for sparking the debate.

      @Krista- Good point you make about decisions we’re faced with not being as clear cut as when we are children.

      @Frank- Thanks for weighing in my friend.

      @Karin- So glad you commented. Thank you.

      @Kevin- Quote of the week “The rational be damned.”. Brilliant!

      @Joan- So true, you can’t decide to follow someone and then complain where they took you. Thanks for sharing that.

  • Great article Trish. I couldn’t agree with you more. Blaming others is not a quick path to success. People catch on when we’re not personally accountable. And now more than ever employees need to be accountable for their own careers and success. I am a coach myself – an executive coach. And what I’m very clear on with the clients that I work with is that my role is to hold the vision and potential for what they can be and are becoming, support them along the way, and hold them accountable for what they want to achieve. People succeed more quickly when they make their choices based on what they want – not what others tell them to do.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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