Responsibility: a Burden or a Privilege?

‘A miraculous healing awaits this planet

once we accept our responsibility to collectively tend the garden,

rather than fight over the turf’

– Bruce H. Lipton

This is a blog entry on the power of Responsibility, Responsibility as a choice.

Remember the time when a new concept or distinction changed the way you looked at things, because that concept provided new openings for action? That concept for me, was that of ‘Responsibility’. Learning a new perspective on it brought a sense of relief – no more space for giving excuses or blaming circumstances when things for me don’t go as expected!

Lessons from my Son

Let me start by sharing the initiative my son took to do his bit for the environment. For his birthday, he asked his friends to replace the gift they would have brought him, with money in an envelope: money to be invested in planting trees in the Entoto Hills, north of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

In my son’s act, I saw leadership that was born as a personal decision, and a dream to bring about change. He was concerned about the state of the environment in our city and surroundings, and chose to do something about it. Leadership for him was expressed as a choice, and not as an obligation.

The result of this act was that trees were planted, his classmates and their parents joined and awareness on the issue was raised. For me, leadership is leadership when it generates results, and a first step to generating such results is by having a new relationship to responsibility.

A New Perspective on Responsibility

What comes to our mind when we hear the word ‘responsibility’?

Responsibility is commonly held to be the same as fault, obligation, blame or credit. It is usually associated to feelings of guilt, shame or burden. If we think of a situation where something we are committed to is not working, or not working well, most probably, we would think of who is to blame and why.

Think of the language used in such situations: the language of blame? I would say that it is easily produced and comfortable to express: it holds others responsible for the gaps between committed intentions and reality, it frequently generates frustration and a sense of impotence in the speaker, and generates defensiveness in others.

It may also reduce the chance for learning and doesn’t make one move to action – when things happen, our first impulse is to claim no responsibility.

In meetings for example, our explanations for why something happened attribute the cause to something or someone else. We either have reasons why not or results; and in this listening of not responsible a good enough reason or justification for why we did not produce the result is acceptable (in school, when we got an A we would say ‘I got an A’, and if the grade was F, wasn’t it ‘The teacher gave me an F!!’)

In such circumstances, we are perhaps quick to adopt the role of victim, placing 100% responsibility for the problem on others.  When a problem arises, assume that it is someone else’s fault.

The question is:  does this mode of thinking serve us? Does it get us anywhere?

Responsibility: an Empowering Perspective

The invitation here is taking the powerful view: when something happens we don’t like, we have a choice of how to view it – we can look out through the window at who did it to us or look in the mirror at ourselves to see what we did or didn’t do.

For example, I may complain that the meetings I am part of don’t get us anywhere. I can remind myself:  ‘I am committed to the effectiveness of meetings in my organization, but . . . our meetings often start late and don’t seem to accomplish anything’

I can then ask myself: ‘What am I doing or not doing that is contributing to my commitment not being realized?’

I may then realize: ‘Although I see the meeting is starting late and no one has prepared the agenda, I don’t speak up and later complain to my friends about it.’ Taking this perspective reminds me that there is something I have done (or not done) to make things happen the way they did.

I would argue that this is my first step towards personal freedom and peace of mind.

“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are.

I don’t believe in circumstances.

The people who get on in the world

are the people who get up

and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”

– George Bernard Shaw


Responsibility as a Choice

When I view Responsibility as a choice I have the willingness to hole myself as cause: there is no proof of that I am responsible in this sense, because it is simply a perspective I choose to take in life. I find this empowering to do so. In situations in which I feel people blame each other for what has happened I put my hand up and say: ‘I’m responsible for what has happened.’ I then notice that the conversation shifts from blame, to moving into action together, and find a solution.

When I choose to adapt the perspective of responsibility as a choice, what has happened shifts from \”happening to me\” (being the victim of life\’s circumstances) to \”just what\’s happening\” (neutrality) and ultimately to \”what is happening is a result of my being cause in the matter” (full acceptance). I can then act, not react as a victim. From then on, my response becomes truly creative.

Nelson Mandela’s Radical Responsibility

Let’s see how far this can go. Nelson Mandela, was once asked about his experience of spending at least 27 years of his life in prison. Someone who interviewed him asked, \”How did you endure all those years in prison?\”

His answer was, \”I wasn\’t enduring. I was preparing myself, for the possibility of leading my people, when I was released.\”  

Now, that response, for me, shows how radical we can be about taking the stand for being responsible. Someone like Nelson Mandela could do it, and we can too!

I’d love to hear from you now. What are your reflections on this new perspective on Responsibility? Where is it in your life that you can take on the stand of Responsibility as a choice, rather than a burden?

Many thanks to all those who inspired the writing of this blog: Joseph Friedman and Allan Henderson, Leadership Coaches; Sofia Abdulkadir of ‘The Greatness Show’, 105.3 AFRO FM, and all my colleagues in the leadership development community who are my everyday teachers