The Purposeful Leader

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Responsibility

Leadership, Motivation, Values

New week. New challenge. New experiment.

A couple of weeks ago, I issued a challenge, invited you to try eliminating negative self-talk for seven days.

Last week, I invited you to take a look at the many options between disengaging and beating yourself up when things don’t go your way.

These skills, addressing two flavors of self-judgment, are a required baseline for challenge three: take responsibility for everything.

Before you go running, hear me out.

For most of my life, I equated responsibility with work or heavy lifting. To take responsibility for something meant being in charge, doing more.

And I still think that’s true.

But responsibility is also synonymous with power. When we take responsibility, we also have authority and control.

Using a simple example, if you agree to lead a project, yes, you have might have more work to do than others on the project team. But you also likely get to pick which parts of the work you do vs. delegate, you have influence over how the project gets done and a greater impact on the ultimate result.

Responsibility is work. And it’s also power.

There are many aspects of life that we are subtly taught are out of our control, or are heavily influenced by our circumstances, but the two that I think do us the most harm are our emotions and our time.

In these areas, we are taught to delegate responsibility rather than claim it.

Now, in some ways, that’s easier, and maybe even preferable. If other people are responsible for how we feel and for our time, we don’t have to do as much heavy lifting.

If other people interrupting my work is the responsibility of the universe, I don’t have to say no as often, don’t have to commit to the discipline and discomfort that sometimes comes with getting things done. I have a perfectly acceptable and ready-made excuse for not working on the not-urgent-but-important-to-me stuff that represents the next-level leadership I know I’m capable of but also terrifies me.

If other people are responsible for my emotions, I don’t have to look at my own behavior and thoughts in the presence of that person who pushes my buttons. I’m justified.

It’s just easier.

Or is it?

Here’s what I’ve found: it’s so much harder.

Take that last example, of the person who pushes your buttons. When that person is responsible for how you feel — angry, indignant, frustrated — they have all the power, and they need to change in order for you to feel better. And particularly if this person is, say, someone in your family or on your team, your only recourse is to somehow figure out a way to eliminate them from your experience.

So every time you spend time with this person, you are “required” to feel terrible.

Boo to that, I say.

Taking responsibility means doing more work, yes, but that work is a permanent solution. When you decide that you are responsible for your feelings and behavior, and when you investigate the thoughts that are causing your frustration? When you look at those thoughts with curiosity, and allow the other person to be who they are (which, ahem, they are absolutely going to do anyway, with or without your permission) while being who you are?

Seeing the other person has only the emotional effect you allow or desire.

Boom to that, I say.

And in taking responsibility, we learn and see so much that is hidden from view when we delegate. What I’ve personally found is that ownership leads to a depth of understanding for others that I didn’t have previously. When I don’t believe that another person might be an emotional threat, I have much more brain space for curiosity and empathy. I learn more about a person who otherwise I would have spent my time avoiding.

And always, always, I see that my experience of them was a drama invented entirely in my mind.

Let’s look at the time example.

All the ways we spend our time represent choices.

When someone approaches us with a question while we’re working, we choose whether to let it distract us. We don’t think of it this way, we think of it as people interrupting us and making demands on our time, but really, it’s just people getting their work done, just like we’re trying to. We don’t like saying no, maybe, so we choose to let ourselves be interrupted. But just think about how differently we react when what we’re working on needs to be completed for a 10 AM meeting. We just say no to the interruption.

Taking responsibility, in this example, means prioritizing our commitments to ourselves like we do our commitment to a 10 AM deadline. It means owning the number of interruptions in our days and seeing them as a sign of what we have and haven’t communicated to others about communicating with us.

But like with the emotional example, responsibility is a permanent solution. Responsibility gives us all the power.

So here’s the challenge: for the next week, use responsibility language. Take responsibility for all of your emotions and all of the ways you use your time. Here are some examples:

  • I felt so anxious before the meeting because I kept thinking about how contentious the last discussion was.
  • I felt so angry because I was thinking that she should behave differently.
  • I didn’t process as many emails as I planned because I chose to respond to a couple of people who asked for my help.
  • I stayed late because I chose to keep working instead of going in early tomorrow.

Going back to the beginning of this post, the foundation here is curiosity, not judgment. The point isn’t to blame yourself for anything. It’s to call attention to your power + your choices. You don’t have to do anything differently if you don’t want to. But the exercise will illuminate where you have more choice than you think and will call your attention to the choices you’re already making.

As always, let me know how it goes. Tell me if you get stuck. Send me your questions. I love hearing from you.


Responsibility is power, yes. It’s also freedom. It’s the ability to walk as we choose, live as we choose, without taking on the impossible task of changing the entire world. The paradox here strikes me every day — when a client says no to exhaustion by rising up to take more control, when a client experiences ease and lightness by accepting rather than rejecting another person. The clients I work with are ready for responsibility as a path to freedom. I’d be delighted to talk to you if you’re ready for that path. Schedule a free 40-minute coaching consultation.