Responsibility: It’s Never Anyone Else’s Fault (Even If It Is)

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 have developed my own ‘Responsibility Rule’: It’s never someone else’s fault (even when it is).Personal Responsibility

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.

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 ‘Responsibility Rule’ is a powerful launchpad for deliberate and authentic leadership.

Why?  Here are five reasons why the ‘Responsibility Rule’ will dramatically enhance the effectiveness of your leadership.

Responsibility Rule Reason One: Backing Your Team

TeamworkHave 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.

Responsibility Rule Reason Two: 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.

Responsibility Rule Reason Three: 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.

Responsibility Rule Reason Four: 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!

Circles of InfluenceYour 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 of your control.

Responsibility Rule Reason Five: Just Because It 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 even may have that ‘glowing’ feeling from doing a good deed.

Try it next time there’s a problem and see what you think!

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3 comments

  1. The more I read The Responsibility Rule, the more I like it – along with reasons you present for it. And there is of course a point that there are people out there who make mistakes, or do stupid things – but if you take the responsibility rule approach to it, instead of playing the blame game, then people with be more concerned not to do stupid things (because people who do stupid things most often know it themselves and blame themselves, which they would not want to do again) – but at the same time they will know that they are empowered to take calculated risks and make the occasional honest mistake as a result of trying something new. And that is basically the way that innovation is made.

    1. That’s a great point Henrik!

      It’s also true that I look for it in others. By that I mean I don’t blame my team for things, and in exchange, I can expect them not to blame their team members for things… Otherwise you either apply a double standard OR everyone is passing the buck and nobody’s responsible for anything – we’re all victims. I think that leaders who blame their team for things, but then expect them to be accountable for their mistakes are being hypocritical.

      But I love the idea that I’m also helping innovation flourish! That’s great!

      1. I think that you do right in expecting this behaviour from your team – it is an important part of being a leader to appoint people with the right mindset for leadership positions. Even though we value diversity, there are certain traits that would be difficult to see as acceptable diversity: hypocrisy, blaming, taking credit which should rightfully go to the team.

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