I love words—puns, idioms, etc. A couple of apparently similar idioms come to mind as I reflect on what’s going on in the world, my nation, and my organization. But the difference in these two expressions is vast.
Passing the buck* is shifting responsibility to another person instead of accepting it, whether or not the other is willing to take it. It can involve blaming another for one’s own failures, or shifting a job/responsibility that should be one’s own to someone else.
Passing the baton, on the other hand, (or passing the torch, or handing over the reins—aren’t idioms fun?) is handing over responsibility to another after one has already done his/her best to fulfill it for some time. It implies that the other person is willing and has been prepared to do the job.
In situations of passing along responsibility to others—e.g. parenting, training on the job—I need to stop and think whether I’m passing the buck or passing the baton. One is the epitome of irresponsibility; the other is wise management and involves good mentoring. One is abusing people; the other is enabling them.
*Etymology: The expression is said to have originated from poker, in which a marker or counter (e.g., a knife with a buckhorn handle during the American Frontier era) was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal he could pass the responsibility by passing the “buck“, as the counter came to be called, to the next player. (Source: Wikipedia)