Leadership Is Responsibility

“Leadership is influence.” John Maxwell

“Leadership is service.” Robert Greenleaf

“Leadership is taking responsibility.” Grant McMillan

I do not intend the above to be interpreted that I am among the great leadership thinkers. I put the above three sentences to show that I think there is something missing in current leadership theory, and that gap is taking personal responsibility.

The real world expects leaders to take responsibility, but there is very little of that understanding in current leadership literature. Personal responsibility is perhaps what sets leaders apart. Leadership is not just influence, and it is not just being a servant. It is lifting your head up, seeing what needs to be done, figuring out who is responsible to do it (usually me!), and then making sure it gets done.

This could be solving a problem, proposing a better future, or any number of things. But the very first thing is to be able to see. That takes a conscious effort. It’s so much easier to get buried in the minutia, the busy stuff of every day, or even to duck your head to avoid the heavy lifting. But avoiding responsibility means we also avoid the joy of living a meaningful life – of making a difference! This is the corollary of Stephen Covey’s idea of consequences: if you pick up the tail end of the snake, the other end comes with it! To put it more positively, if you do the heavy lifting of important and meaningful work you earn all the good things that come with it, including better leadership muscles for next time!

I was inspired on this topic by my students in the BA Leadership program offered through our Adult Degree Completion program at TWU. This came up in our last class as we summarized what leadership really means.

And, apparently, I’m not the only one talking about this. Check out this message from the former Dean of Stanford’s GSB program, Robert Joss, upon his retirement in 2009. Very good stuff for university leaders.


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