Real leaders take personal responsibility

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson

I was talking with my son one morning about a grade he was getting in one of his classes. He always earned A’s in math but was now getting a C. I asked him what was going on?

What I heard were explanations like: the teacher is hard to understand; he is not a good teacher; the stuff on the test is not what we do in class; and the teacher doesn’t like me.

What I heard were a bunch of excuses of why the teacher was responsible for his grade, but he took no responsibility for himself.

Later that day I was working with a supervisor who was having some problems with one of her employees. The supervisor told me this employee was really frustrating her because lately he had been coming into work late almost every day. Furthermore, the quality of his work was sub-par.

“What did he say when you asked him about the tardiness and the poor work quality?” I asked. Her response didn’t surprise me. She hadn’t talked to her employee. She was getting more upset each day, and eventually it almost became a game for her to wait and see what time he would show up to work. She would get more and more angry but never address the issue.

I often ask a group of employees or managers about the most frustrating traits of bad leaders. Leaders not taking responsibility for their actions is always near the top. Of course, many of these leaders have a difficult time connecting their actions (or lack of) to the problem and can easily justify some other reason.

Think of elected officials who get caught doing something wrong but say “people are out to get me.” Few are crazy enough to say it, but many have convinced themselves that is the case.

Have you ever witnessed leaders make a mistake and then say they were given bad information, the previous boss told them to do it this way, someone on their team dropped the ball, or there was no way of seeing this issue coming down the road?  Really? Everyone else in the organization saw it.

My favorite is: “You misunderstood what I was saying.” If I communicate a message to you and you don’t understand it, ultimately who needs to step up and take responsibility? I do! In my head, it seemed like a clear message that was not open to much interpretation but in reality, it wasn’t crystal clear but more like mud. Own up to the miscommunication and create clarity around the message.

We all have to take responsibility for ourselves and the part we play in every interaction with another human being. Yes, that teacher, that employee or some other factor may play a role in the outcome of the situation. However, we have to take responsibility for our own actions.

What would happen if we sat down the employee and asked why they were consistently late? Maybe they have a sick parent or some other serious reason for the problem. My experience has taught me that “incompetent employees” are not always incompetent.

It is easy to put the blame on someone else for our failures but what if that employee isn’t getting a clear understanding of our expectations? We have set both of us up for failure. When the work is not done to our satisfaction, do we meet with the person and clarify expectations? Whether it’s a project or timeliness to work, it is our responsibility to clearly share our expectations.

Why is it so hard for people to take responsibility? First, I believe some have convinced themselves they play no part in the failure and second, some think admitting they made a mistake will erode their credibility as a leader. In fact, leaders who admit when they are wrong receive greater respect and trust from their employees. Just don’t keep making the same mistakes.

After a long discussion with my son, he acknowledged that maybe the teacher wasn’t out to get him. Maybe he could have studied more. Maybe he could go in for tutoring. In other words, maybe he was directly responsible for the grade and he needed to take more responsibility.


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