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Self-responsibility is the primary leadership lesson

In the Advanced Leadership Course offered by my firm, we help leaders improve their strategic thinking, clarity of purpose and awareness of bias.  We teach them how to forge deeper connections with their family members and teams, deliver high-caliber coaching and mentoring, and bring greater courage and skill to relationship challenges.

We view these competencies as critical to high-functioning leadership, but the No. 1 lesson we teach is self-responsibility.  

What does it mean to be self-responsible?  

Most leaders believe the term is a synonym for reliability — doing what you say you will do — and a majority already consider themselves to be reliable. There is little to be learned there.

To be self-responsible requires purposeful, periodic reflection about how one “shows up” in any situation or role.

To start this process, we ask our ALC participants to execute on four critical dimensions of self-responsibility:

Regulate your emotional reactivity

I often quote the brilliantly simple words of leadership thinker Rabbi Ed Friedman:  

“The overreaction to a problem is usually a bigger problem than the problem.”

Look at it this way:  In any organization or family, something is going to go wrong. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when a customer complaint, stalled succession planning, a sick kid who’s not improving, a valued executive who jumps ship, a partner who commits a crime.

When something happens, the outcome hinges on the maturity of the leader. I’ve found that the biggest variable influencing whether a challenge remains a temporary glitch or spirals into a crisis is the presence and poise of the leader.

If you want to work on regulating your emotional reactivity, start with three strategies:

1) Identify the people and situations that trigger your reactivity.

2) Develop personal disciplines that aid calmness, clear thinking and a broader perspective. For example, set aside reflection or journaling time, or talk to a trusted, neutral resource.

3) Think through how you want to show up differently in situations where you typically become reactive.

When a leader is able to stay cool and thoughtful, the whole organization benefits.

Examine and tighten your beliefs

It won’t do for a leader to be taken in by a popular quote from the latest book or online post.  Leaders owe it to their families and work teams to devote deeper thought to what they actually believe. Why?  Because beliefs dictate behaviors. If the beliefs are generic or superficial, the behaviors that follow are more likely to be weak or harmful.

The lesson here is to take responsibility for examining your beliefs. Here’s how:  For every important belief you hold, ask yourself what I call “drill-down” questions.  Consider two examples:

Surface belief:   “I believe hard work leads to success.”  

Drill-down questions:  What do you mean by success?  Do you measure success in economic return, concrete results, confidence, positive feelings?  How do you explain those who succeed without working hard?  And the large number of people who work hard and still remain at the bottom rungs?  When is your belief accurate and when is it a comfortable delusion?

Surface belief:  “I believe there is evil in the world.”

Drill-down questions:  What do you consider the difference between evil and misfortune?  What produces someone who, in your mind, is evil?  Are they born that way?  How much of their evil nature is in their control?  Do people choose evil over good, or do circumstances coalesce in such a way that people make bad choices?  Should we round up and eliminate all the evildoers? Who decides who’s evil?  If an evildoer turned out to be your child, would that change your mind?

Don’t settle for sloppy beliefs.  Figure out what you really believe, and make sure your beliefs line up with reality.

Take a position

A female business leader I work with has decided to leave her marriage, and her handling of the situation reminds me of how many leaders function at work.

Over many years, she has told her husband she is unhappy and wants to leave. They’ve been through numerous counseling sessions and now sleep in separate beds.

She has shared her feelings, questions and opinions.  “I am not doing well.”  “Why are we staying?”  “This is not good for me and it’s not good for us.”

He remains steadfast:  “Things are not that bad.”  “You’re just going through a rough patch.”  “I still love you.”

Despite expressing her feelings after all this time, her situation remains unchanged.

What she hasn’t done is taken a clear position:

“I’ll be moving out by the first of next month.”

“On Monday, I’m meeting an accountant and beginning to accumulate financial data.”

“I want to tell the kids about this before the first of the year.  I would prefer to do this with you, but I am willing to talk to them without you.”

Taking a position is a more powerful strategy than simply communicating a feeling or a desire. It also requires more work — the hard thinking about what you actually want and need.

This is a big-time area of self-responsibility for leaders. The people who work for you and with you want to know what’s important to you and what your intentions are.

Consider the timing of your actions

A toolbox full of tools is not much good if you don’t know when to use each tool.  

Self-responsibility requires that you consider the specifics of each individual situation and make the best decision possible.  When complications arise, or exceptions to a rule seem warranted, or dire circumstances occur, what do you do and when do you do it?

When should you speak and when should you listen?  When should you go for the win — or concede?  When should you address a situation and when should you let it blow over?

A self-responsible leader considers timing.  There is no formula or guideline because not all children or employees, families or businesses can be treated the same.

You’ll know you are getting better at considering timing when your responses are less impulsive and more thoughtful.  You’ll be using phrases like:

“It depends on the situation.”

“I need to think about that.”

“I’m clear on what to do; I need more time to decide when to do it.”

Self-responsibility takes practice. Sometimes you have to act on the fly.  Mostly it means a lifelong commitment to knowing yourself and expressing yourself clearly, which fortifies both relationships and leadership.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at John@LeadershipCoachingInc.com.

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