Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 27;   July 5, 2006: Are You a Fender?

Are You a Fender?

by

Taking political risks is part of the job, especially if you want the challenges and rewards that come with increased responsibility. That's fair. But some people manage political risks by offloading them onto subordinates. Be certain that the risk burden you carry is really your own — and that you carry all of it yourself.

In December, 1972, about 117 hours into the Apollo 17 lunar mission, as Astronaut Eugene Cernan was loading the Lunar Rover for the mission's first excursion across the surface of the moon, he accidentally caught the right rear fender of the rover with a hammer. He damaged it, and made a quick repair that really didn't hold. Overnight, Houston worked out a more durable repair that the astronauts installed in the morning, and it held up well during two subsequent excursions.

The Apollo 17 Lunar Rover, showing its damaged fender

The Apollo 17 Lunar Rover, showing its damaged fender. Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

It's a good thing, too. On Lunar Rovers, fenders are important. They protect the vehicle and the astronauts from the dust and rocks kicked up by the wheels. Fenders do something similar for cars, bicycles, and motorcycles.

And sometimes, people serve an analogous role for their supervisors. At work, a fender is anyone who serves to prevent political mud from splashing on the fender's boss. Here are some indicators that you might be a fender.

Other people are fenders
If one or more of your peers or predecessors (or their predecessors) were or are fenders, you might be one yourself. Sometimes it's easier to see in others than in yourself.
You can't exercise your authority
Even though you have formal authority for something, you can't really exercise it without your boss's approval. For instance, if you want to initiate a replacement process or a performance improvement plan for a problem subordinate, and your boss insists on detailed involvement in the procedure, you might be a fender. In extreme cases, you might be told to wait for a "more convenient" time, or that a replacement requisition won't be available.
If the task is risky, it's yours
A fender is someone
whose role is to protect
the boss from being splashed
with political mud
Most managers handle some tasks through delegation, and some personally. But if your boss tends to delegate tasks to you if and only if they are high-risk politically, you might be a fender.

The consequences for the individual fender are unpleasant enough, but the existence of fenders also harms the organization.

Tolerating unethical behavior
While it might be OK to use an inanimate object as protection from the consequences of your actions, using human beings that way is unethical. Tolerating one form of ethical breach could be a signal of breaches elsewhere.
Disguising the real problem
To enable the organization to take corrective action, bad management must be revealed. Using a subordinate as a fender enables managers to trick the organization into believing that the problem was in the subordinate. This can lead to mistaken corrective action.

Even if you're pretty sure that you aren't using fenders yourself, think carefully. Are you someone who benefits from subordinates who designate and manage fenders on your behalf? Go to top Top  Next issue: We Are All People  Next Issue

For more about the Lunar Rover, see A Brief History of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, 3 April 2002.

And for more about the Apollo 17 mission, see Apollo Lunar Surface Journal,edited by Eric M. Jones, NASA Headquarters, November, 2005.

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