“Excuse me, we are working for whom?”
An employee standing in front of me with tears running down her face was anxiously sharing her concerns a land developer we were planning to work for may not be honest or ethical. She asked how working for this developer, and his company, aligned with our organizational values. She asked if working for this developer was really about the potential profit we could make instead of doing the right thing. I was surprised by these strong accusations and questions from this employee.
This new client was a land developer who had tons of work for us. Not just any work but the perfect kind of work for our land development team of engineers, planners and surveyors. This project could feed these teams for not only months but probably years. What’s more, these teams were desperately in need of a large project they could sink their design talents into and get started. I hadn’t heard anything negative about this developer before so I was stunned to be faced with the question –– do we say yes to working with a client who may not align with our values? And subsequently, do I dismiss this employee’s concerns?
Knowing these accusations were serious and balancing the need for us to keep our teams busy, I knew I needed to do some research. I believe in my staff and respect them so the dilemma bothered me greatly. I began to reach out to friends at the public agencies where this developer had completed similar projects. There was consensus among these trusted colleagues that they did not trust this land development company. They discreetly shared stories of suspicious improprieties, nothing fact based but the evidence was stacking up.
I knew what I had to do: the right thing. No matter what. We were not going to say yes to this new client. I had a few managers and leaders who initially questioned my decision, worried about workload. But, everyone agreed we must be able to walk our talk, to live our values.
As you might expect, karma caught up with the land development company. A few months later there was an article in the local newspaper that a public employee was fired by the agency for accepting money and gifts from this developer in order to move their project along. I never found out the details of this charge but weren’t we lucky to have avoided this trauma to our reputation? Well, actually luck had nothing to do with it. We were simply living our values.
This is the magic of responsibility.
Taking responsibility — particularly when you don’t have to — can open doors you would never have imagined, it can earn you respect, make or break your reputation, and make people far more willing to work with you.
But it isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Fulfilling your promises, doing what you say you’ll do, and taking credit for how it turns out when things are going well is one thing, but doing the same when you or your team’s actions haven’t turned out so well, is another story.
Why we avoid responsibility.
While very few leaders set out to be irresponsible, many find themselves in a pattern of shirking their responsibilities. This can happen for a number of reasons, but it often comes down to some variation of one of three things: money, pressure, or embarrassment.
For some, short-term money concerns begin to overshadow integrity; to save a few bucks a leader might start cutting corners and compromising the responsibility they have to maintain the company’s values.
Pressure too, can be a reason for not stepping up to the plate responsibility-wise. The pressure to perform, to deliver certain results, to maintain a persona can lead to fear. And when fear sets in, you find leaders who avoid making tough decisions, leaders who start to check out mentally, before checking out physically too, skipping meetings and avoiding their team.
And then we have embarrassment: mistakes I made in the early days of my career taught me just how tough it is to hold your hands up and admit that you’ve screwed up!
The cost of not taking responsibility.
However, as hard as it is to act with integrity in each of those situations it’s always, always worth it. Because as worried as people get about what they’ll lose if they take responsibility for things, the cost of not taking responsibility is often far higher than the cost of stepping up.
You might be able to get away with it for a while, but make a pattern of avoiding responsibility and eventually you’ll develop the kind of reputation that costs you far more in customers and business than if you had just taken responsibility to begin with. What’s more, you’ll find that people are far less willing to work with you if you have a reputation for bending the rules or always looking for a loophole, because they know that they can’t rely on you. And nobody wants to be left holding the bag after someone else has made a mistake or failed to take responsibility.
But the real loss that occurs when you fail to take responsibility is that of your integrity. There’s no financial penalty, loss of face, or problem with a project that’s worse than compromising your integrity, because that has to do with the very nature of your character. Plus, your integrity is so integral to every other part of your leadership that in compromising it, you’re undermining your leadership package. Is it worth it? Of course not!
Leading responsibly during the bad times.
So what’s the key to responsible leadership when a crisis hits and you or your team have made a mistake or two?
It boils down to these three things:
It’s so tempting to wait things out, to see if a miracle will happen and the situation rectifies itself. But it probably won’t so the absolute best thing you can do is step up immediately and take responsibility. Like ripping off a Band-Aid: if you have to do it, best to just get it over with.
Forget paying lip service or insincere apologies — when you’re taking responsibility, make it clear that you’re actually acknowledging your role in the process and that you accept that the problem is yours to solve.
An apology doesn’t mean a whole lot if you’re going to sit back and wait for someone else to fix things, so do your best to offer a solution to the problem. Even if you’re not sure how to proceed, you can at least commit to doing the research needed to figure that next step out. Another important element of taking responsibility is to ask for help. This is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of inclusion and recognition that you may not have all of the answers, but are still the responsible one.
Leading responsibly in good times.
However, as important as it is to lead responsibly when things are going wrong, it’s arguably even more important to model responsible leadership during the good times and infuse it into every facet of your leadership.
Because committing to doing so, is also a commitment to leading with integrity, to acting in accordance with your character and your values as you go through your day. It’s about doing what you say you’ll do, and following through on the little things.
It’s about modeling responsibility for your team because, as with any other aspect of leadership, the more you show up and demonstrate responsibility for your team, the more likely they are to follow your lead and take responsibility in their work. And while it might seem a little silly to put such a premium on taking responsibility for small things, it really does signal to your team that you respect them, and that this is the kind of behavior that you expect from them as well.
In fact, the more emphasis you place on acting responsibly day-to-day, the more you focus on getting those little things right, the less likely you are to find yourself in a potentially undesirable position in the first place! Lead responsibly when times are good, and the bad times should be few and far between.
Al Schauer is the Founder of PointNorth Consulting. He offers coaching and mentoring to aspiring leaders committed to leading with character. His new book on values and doing the right thing in leadership will be available soon. Sign up here to receive updates on how you can purchase his book.