Do you ever get tired of people behaving badly? I certainly do. In the workplace, the boardroom, civic and social groups, churches and synagogues, the classroom, sporting events – wherever. People commit all sorts of egregious acts that turn others off and leave them feeling disenfranchised with activities they previously enjoyed. It’s even more frustrating when those badly-behaving people seemingly face no consequences for their actions. Unfortunately, karma isn’t always as swift as we’d like it to be. I know I’ve done things that rub others the wrong way, but I really believe in accepting personal responsibility for my actions and choices, even if I mess up.
If you want to become a better leader, in fact a better person, you might want to examine your attitude toward personal responsibility. I learned how important this was to me when I went through an exercise with a church group that helped us create a “personal ten commandments” that reflected our beliefs, core values and guiding principles. This was not intended to supplant the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments in any way, but reflect something more unique to each individual. After weeks of readings, group discussion and self-reflection, I developed my ten personal commandments all of which are still relevant to me today. Two of them speak to the importance I place on personal responsibility, number five and number eight:
- Take responsibility for your actions; act in ways that promote the greatest possible good.
- Honor your promises and commitments.
Some people really seem to struggle with personal responsibility. They often believe the rules don’t apply to them (or they play dumb). They make a half-hearted effort, fail to fully honor their commitments and fall unacceptably short of what’s required of them, or they make selfish, short-sighted decisions that ultimately sabotage their success and their relationships. Of course the resulting situation they find themselves in is never their fault. They make elaborate excuses, shift blame, play the victim, expect third and fourth chances, and throw others under the bus to deflect the focus away from their own shortcomings. Even worse are those who feel a sense of entitlement, demanding something of value that they failed to earn that they believe is wrongfully withheld from them. Beware of giving in to these people because it only emboldens their sense of entitlement and rewards bad behavior which will almost surely come back to haunt you; their favorite way to get what they want is to threaten a lawsuit. Parents frequently see this when their children throw temper tantrums. Expect the tantrums to continue if you give in because the child learns that it works!
Someone who has learned to take personal responsibility for their actions, on the other hand, would apply forethought and ownership to their actions and choices – and accept the outcome. If the consequences are bad, they would reflect on what they might have done to contribute to the negative outcome, accept their share of the blame, learn from it, and do what’s necessary to improve the situation going forward, if possible. If the consequences are good, you win, your colleagues celebrate with you and you earn their respect and trust. What’s interesting about taking personal responsibility is regardless of the consequences of your actions, it gives you some control over the outcome and you have the power to change it with every decision you make. A wise friend once told me, “You create your own reality.” This is at the core of what personal responsibility is about.
To accept personal responsibility requires maturity, forethought, humility, commitment and courage. People admire those qualities in a leader. Think about it; do you have more respect for the leaders you know who’ve owned up to their mistakes and promised to do better or those who defiantly blamed others and went on stubbornly refusing to accept responsibility? Which type of person would you want as your boss or co-worker? I believe it often boils down to personal integrity and pride. Competent leaders readily admit they aren’t perfect, but it’s clear they take their commitments seriously and expect the same of others. On the other hand, someone who is too proud to admit their mistakes and accept the consequences of their actions displays a disheartening lack of leadership and personal responsibility. Not showing up? Yep, that shows a lack of responsibility and leadership. Showing up, but showing up super late or checking out super early? Same. Failing to do something even though you made a formal commitment to do it? Same. Demanding a personal or financial reward when you didn’t earn it? Yep, totally. All you have to do is look to national politics right now to see numerous high-profile examples of entitled people who refuse to accept personal responsibility for their actions. Don’t like the truth? Just call it fake news. Someone accusing you of doing something unethical? Point out what someone else did that’s just as bad, deflect and distract. Think you’re entitled to something valuable that’s being withheld from you? Threaten a lawsuit and blame someone else for your failure to earn it. The consequences of this behavior at the national level are not just a threat to our nation’s integrity and credibility but to our entire democracy.
Taking personal responsibility begins within ourselves first, before we point the finger outward. It starts when your parents teach you to do your homework at a young age; you learn that the grades you receive are strongly correlated with the effort you made to earn them. It continues when you get your first job and learn that the money you make and the promotions you receive are a reflection of your hard work. It’s reinforced throughout life when you develop strong relationships and you learn that it’s a direct result of the time and care you put into them. Honoring the strength of your convictions and taking action to support your values takes courage and goes hand-in-hand with personal responsibility. It’s never too late to show good leadership by standing up for what’s right, for yourself and others, even if you stand alone.
Nancy Puffer has proudly served in numerous community leadership roles, including President of Tempe Leadership, President of Tempe Community Council and Executive Director of Tempe Neighbors Helping Neighbors.