Why Taking Responsibility Is Always the Best Leadership Choice


In an age of unprecedented complexity, it can be challenging to get the best out of people under normal circumstances. Throw adversity into the mix and, suddenly, even mustering the bare minimum of performance while managing your competing priorities becomes an uphill battle. That’s why we kicked off a three-part series that addresses common counter-productive mindsets that can easily consume leaders in challenging situations. We’re exploring simple, alternative approaches — that are both tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people — that you can consciously choose instead of torpor, self-doubt, or impulsivity. In the first post in the series, we encouraged leaders to look outward for help, instead of retreating inward into isolation. In the second post in the series, we challenged leaders to proactively lean in to tough situations instead of finding ways to avoid, delay, or minimize them. In this final post, we’ll talk about this better choice leaders can make in tough situations:

Instead of deflecting, choose to take responsibility for fixing the problem and wrestle it to the ground. Instead of spreading blame, own and address the issue.

While all our actions as leaders in some way determine whether we will earn the trust of our constituents, this final choice in our “better choices” series relates most directly to our ability to build, earn, and grow trust with our leadership. The importance of trust to leadership cannot be overstated (and we explore the importance of trust in more depth here, here, and here, as well as very purposefully placing it at the center of the ConantLeadership Flywheel, our high-impact model for leadership that works in the 21st century).

Put very simply: if you haven’t earned trust from your stakeholders, you won’t be able to influence people positively to get things done, solve problems, and advance your organization to greater financial performance in the marketplace. There is a clear and direct relationship between the level of trust in your organization and the bottom line.

You have to be extremely tough-minded on the issue.

This applies even more so in times of crisis or upheaval. The more challenging the situation, and the higher the stakes, the more urgent it is that you behave in a trustworthy way. Yes, you have to be extremely tough-minded on the issue. That’s non-negotiable. You must ask critical questions and face the brutal facts of what created the situation to begin with. But also remember that emotions are heightened and stress is high in times of trouble. People often don’t feel like there is much they can rely on, or people in whom they can place their faith. There are factors everywhere impeding their ability to perform, applying pressure to their team — and they may even feel their jobs are endangered, depending on the degree of uncertainty.

With these conditions, all it can take is one breach of trust to ignite a spark that burns the whole effort to the ground. So, it’s imperative that you are careful to behave with integrity even as you’re taking a hard-nosed, clear-eyed approach to tackling the problem. And it offers an opportunity for you, as the leader, to be the stalwart source of reliability and strength that is lacking elsewhere. People are looking to you. It’s your chance to show them who you really are when the chips are down. The best thing you can be is somebody who chooses to take responsibility. Own the issue, hold yourself and others accountable, make a plan to fix it, execute that plan, and move on.

As you work on your ability to consciously choose to take responsibility for problems, crises, and missteps, consider these four things:

1. It’s not about you. It’s about everyone else. In the throes of corporate or organizational competitiveness, it can be tempting to diminish or obfuscate your involvement, to “cover your ass” — but it doesn’t end well. It may buy you some time this go around, but it won’t get you through the next fire drill, or the one after that. People will remember how you behaved.

Next time, rather than rolling up their sleeves to solve the problem alongside you, they might be just as happy to follow your lead and cover their own asses, allowing you to take the fall or clean up the mess all by yourself. Or, they might precipitate a new and bigger problem by hiding things from you. Why would they do this? Because they’re afraid that might hang them out to dry like you did the last time – or they simply do not trust you to take the proper corrective action. This can potentially cause a new problem of unforeseen magnitude, that is made all the worse by the fact that it likely could have been addressed much earlier, and prevented, had people felt comfortable to make you aware of issues sooner. This approach that eschews responsibility for self-preservation is a no-win and destructive path to travel. Particularly for the long-game. Choose to look out for, and take care of, everyone in your organization.

2. People are smart. And they’re depending on you. It’s important to note that people in today’s companies are savvy and observant. They’re plugged into their leaders’ behavior and they’re paying attention. For the most part, they can spot a half-truth or an attempt to deflect blame – or any variation in between. And they’re even quicker to notice the signs of an untrustworthy leader when they’re immersed in the vigilance of a powder keg situation that can feel as dire as a fight for their very survival.

People don’t want you to coddle them. They want you to lead.

 When the safety of their jobs, or the team members, seems at stake, the thing people want most is any signal from their leader that they are capable, competent, and up to the job of handling it. And they look for a leader who also gives them, as employees, actionable ways to jump in and help; they want to be empowered to solve the problem, too. In service of this hunger for true leadership, and their desire to help, they often notice everything. They’re no dummies! They know there’s a tough situation brewing. They don’t want you to downplay it, or protect yourself, or coddle them. They want you to lead.

Choose to head their worries off at the pass by saying this: “I’m aware of how dire this is. I’m owning it. I’ve got a plan to address it. I’m holding people accountable. And we’re gonna get through it together.” It seems simple. But too many leaders try to take circuitous routes out of tough situations, thinking people might not notice, when the most direct route is right through the muck, in clear view of your astute stakeholders.

3. It doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is. Frankly, no matter how big or small your role was in creating the situation you’re facing — as the leader, it’s your job to take at least part of the responsibility. Loudly and visibly. And as soon as possible. Right away, as soon as it’s clear there is a big problem that is affecting the entire organization and needs solving, the fastest route to earning trust is choosing to own the issue. Especially if you’re new, this can be a shortcut to demonstrating your character and securing buy-in from your stakeholders. Conversely, the quickest and surest way to lose trust is failing to take responsibility, or worse, blaming others entirely for the situation. (Even though there is, in fact, usually a lot of blame to go around.)

Own it. Then, fix it.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t identify the people or factors who contributed to the issue you’re facing, hold them accountable, make adjustments, and make sure the same mistakes are not repeated twice. Not at all. In fact, doing that type of tough analysis and correction is an essential part of the responsibility of owning and addressing the problem.

But no matter how many people actually contributed to the thorny conundrum you’re facing, and no matter the reality of the situation, it’s a good idea to claim responsibility for addressing the situation. Own it. Tackle it. Hold people accountable. Then, fix it. When you own the problem, you can own the solution too. Enlist people to help so they can feel engaged in the solution with you. Instead of spreading blame, spread accountability. By taking your share, you’ll inspire others to hold themselves accountable for the issues too. This builds long-lasting trust and sets you up for prolonged leadership success.

4. Move on. Don’t wallow. There’s lots to do. Choosing to take responsibility, in short, has four key steps:

a. Own the issue.

b. Deal with it swiftly, honestly, and as completely as possible.

c. Pledge to not make the same mistake twice.

d. And then move on.

The main goal of choosing to take ownership of the issue to begin with was ensuring everybody could get back to work and resume pre-crisis levels of productivity and pride in their jobs. Don’t allow an issue to define you, or the organization. Everybody has lots to do – especially you. While you have to learn from your mistakes, avoid comparing every situation to the crises of yesterday. Stop yourself from reminding everybody constantly of what has already transpired. The issue occurred. You took responsibility for it, held people accountable and, with everybody’s help, you fixed it. You pledged not to make the same mistake again. It’s in your rearview. Keep it there. And get back to the exciting work of creating enduring value for all your stakeholders.

The next time you’re in the midst of a crisis, don’t try to deflect, or underestimate people, or nitpick about whose fault it was. Choose to take responsibility as the leader. Own the problem, take a hard-nosed approach, present a solution, get to work, and don’t make the same mistake twice. You’ll stave off disaster, fix problems faster, build trust, and get better results.

Was there a time where taking responsibility for a problem has made all the difference to a challenge you were facing? Share in the comments or tweet us at @DougConant. If you found this useful, explore parts one and two in our “better choices” series. 

Better Choices, choices, Crisis, Crisis Management, high performance, Inspire Trust, Leadership That Works, management, Responsibility, trust, Turnarounds,