The responsibility dilemma

Leadership starts with taking full responsibility for yourself and your actions to create a culture of self-efficacy and well-being.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Amid a crisis of burnout and finger pointing at those who “fail to take proper care of us,” I am stepping forward to proclaim a radical view: fixing things is not up to anybody else.
No one is coming to tell your boss you need work-life balance. No one is coming to make sure you get outside for a run. No one is coming to stop the rush of emails and meetings.
Only you can make the changes that will bring improvement to your life and leadership.

Who is Responsible?

Back in March, Headspace designer Frank Bach asked Twitter what makes for a great place to work. (And, yes, Headspace is hands-down a great place to work.) People suggested the usual metrics; however, I was surprised by one young millennial’s comment about how important it is that a company help their employees navigate tough world events.

Really? I thought. Your company gives you meaningful work, pays you in exchange for your energy, develops your professional competence … AND serves as your emotional backstop when the world explodes unexpectedly? Then I realized I was judging, and so I put it down (that’s the practice). I reflected on what Inspired Results CEO Diane Lloyd has been finding in her conversations with leaders: that people are asking more of their leaders than ever before. In fact, Gallup reports that this higher degree of care is what the younger workforce demands.

Despite the actual truth lying at the other end of the spectrum — that self-efficacy and well-being soar when you take responsibility for your own life —we are, from gen Z to boomers, still mired in a social matrix where we consciously and willingly believe our happiness lies in the hands of others.

So, whether you think it’s fair or not, as a leader this is on you.

This is the Reality We’re Starting From

Sociologist and leadership educator Brené Brown states that “Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.”

In their 2019 book It’s the Manager: Moving from Boss to Coach, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton and co-author Jim Harter second Brown’s assertions, noting that in addition to wanting purpose and development, gen Z and millennials also want ongoing conversations about their performance. They want coaches, not bosses.

But there’s a grey area here — echoed by this young person’s words on Twitter. Coaching, absolutely. But should bosses be responsible for helping their employees handle unpredictable and frightening world events?

As I see it, the answer is both yes and no. As a leader, you have a responsibility to set an emotional tone for your organization. You should avoid crisis-flapping and panic-screaming — and if you engage in either, you should be prepared to be vulnerable and get honest about what’s going on for you, then model for your team how a person gets themselves centred again. But beyond setting an emotional tone, the emotional ripples caused by world events are people’s own to deal with —not their company’s.

I realize this will be a terrifically unpopular opinion with some.

The point of us examining this tension is to recognize that the demands on leaders will not stop increasing. Whether it’s right or not, leaders are being asked to backstop their teams emotionally.

This, however, is a recipe for burnout. We have created a world where people have become accustomed to looking to others to make their lives tolerable. And the only way out is to reverse the tide.

It’s Not up to Anybody Else

If you haven’t yet heard of the Conscious Leadership Group — and you likely have not — please look them up. What distinguishes the CLG is their fierce conviction that improvement comes fastest and embeds strongest when a person starts to do the work inside.

To this end, CLG offers very little that doesn’t force growth in the personal realm. They propose 15 commitments to become a conscious leader. The first reads: “I commit to taking full responsibility for the circumstances of my life, and my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. I commit to support others to take full responsibility for their lives.”

Makes you nervous, eh? In their eponymous book, 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, they recommend you don’t even bother trying to figure out the rest of the commitments until you nail #1 and #2 (being curious instead of being right). That’s how important it is to take responsibility for everything.

You are gradually going to take all responsibility for your life. And — here’s the exciting part — as you get better at it, you’re gradually going to hand off all responsibility for your employees’ and loved ones’ lives …to them.

Only by taking 100 per cent responsibility for yourself and your life can you get to a better place and have it stick. The result is that you then become a model for others and will inspire them to level up as well.

Competencies for Leaders to Embrace:

  1. Speak directly and tell only the truth.
  2. Model self-awareness.
  3. Show gratitude and appreciation.
  4. Practice integrity, fiercely honouring agreements and deadlines.
  5. Be curious, ask questions and listen, rather than needing to be right.
  6. Live in your zone of genius and delegate the things that you aren’t good at.

Alex Van Tol writes and consults for leadership development organizations, entrepreneurs and SMEs. She has long been aware that life unfolds exactly as you ask it to.

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