There’s a great leadership quote from General Bruce Clarke that I love: “When things go wrong in your command, start searching for the reason in increasingly large circles around your own desk.”
From this I developed my own ‘Personal Responsibility Rule’: It’s never someone else’s fault (even when it is).
I have adopted this as a ‘rule’ in my own practice as a leader, and in life. I accept that there is always something else I could have done – or not done – to change the outcome for the better.
It doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who make mistakes, or do stupid things: of course there are. The point is, there will still be something else you could have done to avoid the outcome that occurred. Deliberate leaders take this as an opportunity to learn and grow. To make sure it doesn’t happen again (fool me once, shame on you…).
This applies to your clients as well as your internal stakeholders. It applies to your friends and family too.
In a previous post, I talked about how to develop as a leader, irrespective of the position you hold in an organisation.
Along with the ‘Golden Rule’ (treat others as you would like to be treated), I think this ‘Personal Responsibility Rule’ is a powerful launchpad for deliberate and authentic leadership.
Here are five ways the ‘Responsibility Rule’ will dramatically enhance the effectiveness of your leadership.
#1: Personal responsibility = backing your team
Have you ever worked with, or for, someone who ‘threw you under the bus’ the minute things got real? Nobody wants to work with that guy! Don’t be that guy!
When your team know that you’ve got their backs, especially when they make a mistake, they’re more likely to innovate, take risks, communicate more effectively with you and each other, and generally be more successful.
But doing this is hard – chances are you’re annoyed, or even angry that they let you down – why shouldn’t you let people know that they messed up? Why should you take the blame when you didn’t do it?
But that’s the point. To demonstrate you are a true leader, you take ownership for it. Not by lying – you don’t have to say that you personally lost the client or damaged the equipment – but it happened on your watch, and therefore there will be numerous things you could have done to avert catastrophe: own those things. People will line-up to be on your team.
#2: Personal responsibility = demonstrating accountability
Closely related, but subtly different: nobody wants to employ the guy who blames everybody else and never takes responsibility for mistakes. Don’t be that guy either!
It’s easy to slip into the trap of thinking that by pointing out another’s mistakes you somehow look better by comparison. But it simply doesn’t work that way. At best, it indicates that your leadership is ineffective. At worst, it shows that you lack character.
To be clear, this doesn’t only apply to your immediate superiors either. It also applies to your clients. Nobody wants to know that the company they’re working with/buying something from is so dysfunctional that there’s no internal loyalty between departments or teams! You can build an exceptionally loyal client by taking ownership, and fixing the mistake – but seldom is this the case if you blame someone else.
#3: Personal responsibility = deliberately choosing growth
Reason One and Reason Two both apply to what you say or do overtly when something goes wrong. Reason Three is more about your own internal monologue. You can outwardly accept responsibility and demonstrate that you are backing your team, but if you don’t actually internalise it, you miss the opportunity for massive personal growth.
Tony Robbins likes to say that the difference between those who succeed and those who do not, is the quality of the questions they ask themselves (I’ve paraphrased this – sorry Tony, if I’ve got if wrong, let me know!) Which do you think is a more powerful question: “what can I do differently to make sure my team respond better to this situation in the future?” or “why did my team let me down?”.
Better still, after using great questions to explore your own effectiveness, go team-wide! Invite your team to let you know what you could have done differently to support them better. Ask them what else they need to grow their effectiveness. Ask them what steps you need to put in place to assist them to keep you informed about risks. All of these questions build trust, and show that you are personally accountable for the work of the team. It will also make them determined not to let you down.
#4: Personal responsibility = enhancing your self-efficacy
As my professional career has developed, I have become increasingly convinced that having an external locus of control is negatively correlated with effective leadership. In other words, if you believe that most things that happen to you are outside of your control (i.e. someone else’s fault), how can you ‘control’ a function, a group or a team? Control isn’t a particularly useful analogy to leadership, but if you believe that nothing you do has an impact or changes the outcome, then you certainly aren’t going to inspire others to effective action!
Your sense of self-efficacy is hard to change – but not impossible. Regularly focusing on the things that are within your control, and aiming to make those as effective and impactful as possible, will help. There are even techniques for identifying those things you can control and those you can’t, like circles of influence – your aim should be to grow the circle that includes the things you can change outwards, to include more of the things you might have previously thought were outside your control.
#5: Personal responsibility just feels good
There aren’t many things in the world that I would recommend you do just because it feels good, but this is one of them!
The feeling of personal empowerment that comes from applying this rule is well worth the effort. You’ll feel more effective, more impactful, more deliberate, and you may even get that ‘glowing’ feeling from doing a good deed.
Try it next time there’s a problem and see what you think!