Personal Responsibility and Leadership

Have you ever thought about the relationship between responsibility and leadership?  I have always understood that the two were linked but a recent incident helped me focus on a critical aspect of the relationship.

I work with an individual (I’ll call him Bob) in a local charitable organization, who has a habit of criticizing the work of other members whenever projects do not yield the results we are expecting.  He is the first to say: “I knew that was not going to work”, or “I can’t believe you took that approach.”

The interesting thing is that Bob never volunteers to take responsibility for any of our projects.  He will point out the need to take action, or complain about the fact that we are not making progress in certain areas, but has never volunteered a solution or taken responsibility to fix the problem.  When other members suggest an approach to addressing an issue, Bob is the first to say:  “That will never work.”

Our former president told me once that he appreciated having Bob in our group because he kept us from getting into trouble.  I acknowledged the need for someone to point out the risks associated with any new project, but suggested that to move forward we needed to tackle projects and manage the risks.

Last week Bob’s true colors were revealed.  He was forced to personally complete a project left behind by a retiring member of our club.  When the project was completed, one of our members pointed out a minor problem in the project deliverables.  Upon hearing the criticism Bob became extremely defensive and lashed out at the other member.  He immediately started blaming the retired member and refused to take responsibility for the results.  The rest of the members were shocked by Bob’s reaction.  This was a side of Bob they had not seen.  It occurred to me that we had not seen this side of Bob because he had never been personally responsible for anything before.

As I reflected on the situation, it occurred to me how critical personal responsibility was to leadership.  I say ‘personal’ responsibility because I believe there are people who will assume responsibility for something if they believe there are others they can blame if something goes wrong.

On the surface it would seem that people who are not willing to assume responsibility would never be put into a leadership role. Unfortunately it happens all too often.  There are some people who get promoted because they are very adept at pushing blame off on others. These people are promoted because there is a perception that they have not been responsible for failed projects. Unfortunately these phony leaders wreck havoc on organizations and do a tremendous amount of damage before they are found out.  They blame others for every failure, which ultimately results in good people leaving and a culture of risk aversion that inhibits growth.

In Jim Collins’ book, ‘From Good to Great’, he talks about ‘Level 5 Leadership’.  One of the characteristics of a “Level 5 Leader” is their tendency to be the first to take the blame when things go wrong and the first to give credit to others when things go right.  These are the kind of leaders that people love to work for and who create a culture in an organization that propels the organization to greatness.

What kind of leaders are you promoting in your organization?

Leadership Excellence

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