Do your own thing…

Last night I was in a meeting with colleagues. We began our talk with a question, “what does responsibility mean to you?”One of my colleague’s answers has stayed with me. He said it has been a journey to learn how not to take responsibility for things that belong to others, and instead to take it only for what he has committed to. Since our organisation is co-owned and we strive for co-leadership his answer struck a chord. It went to the heart of the paradox I experience working in a collaborative environment. To fully let the collective work, people need to fully express and act on their individuality.

Learning to take responsibility only for what is yours requires a subtle set of skills not often taught, but much in demand. The first is learning to listen to yourself and only commit to what you know you can and will do based on your unique skills, desires, energy and commitments. The second is learning to not jump in when something is presenting itself and no one takes it up. To dare to not to step in even if the consequence is that something won’t happen. Last is the subtle art of letting others take responsibility for what they commit to in their own way and trusting what they do and how they do it.

I have often seen people in leadership positions, including myself, taking responsibility for things that weren’t theirs. Organisations are full of this seemingly heroic behaviour and people get a big kick out of being saviours. The long term effects of this behaviour are damaging everyone involved — both those not taking the responsibility and those doing the saving. What is often overlooked is that it is bad for the organisation as a whole. It covers up the reasons why something isn’t getting done. In some cases this is due to personal decisions or character but more often it belies something deeper and more at the heart of what isn’t working within the organisation. Often this hard to see something contains important information about where we may need to change or develop.

Once a friend of mine spoke about the selfishness of taking responsibility for things that don’t belong to you. He said, “never deny someone the opportunity to see the beauty of their own creation.” As counter-intuitive as it feels in the moment, stepping away from taking responsibility for things that don’t belong to you is one of the most powerful ways to take leadership and support both the individual and the collective. I realise this is a long road and continuous learning journey for me, luckily it is filled with great moments of surprise and laughter and learning…..What are your experiences with this?