Leadership Quality #16: Responsibility – If you Won’t Carry the Ball, you Can’t Lead the Team

A leader can give up anything – except final responsibility.

Standing out as a real exception in the South African context is the recent resignation of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene. Falling on his sword and taking responsibility for his actions by coming clean to the commission of inquiry into state capture. ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu said of Nene, “There are very few people who are able to own up to their error of judgement. Comrade Nene is amongst the few.”

Why has our culture become far more focused on our rights than our responsibilities? On being victims versus being responsible?  Let me start by inviting consideration of the following:

Responsibility is about saying, “I’m here in this situation, I’ve got something to do with why things are the way they are. It’s less about taking blame or taking credit, and more about being interested in the ‘what is that something’  I’ve got to do with why things are this way?”

Often our definition of, or relationship to, responsibility comes from some childhood experience of it as some awful grown up burden and we resist it, at all costs.

Good leaders never embrace a victim mentality. They recognise that who and where they are remain their responsibility – not that of their parents, spouses, their children, the government, their shareholders or their co-workers. They face whatever life throws at them and give it their best, knowing that they will get an opportunity to lead the team only if they’ve proved that they can carry the ball.  Let’s look at the characteristics of people who embrace responsibility:

  1. They get the job done – No one can do the minimum and reach their maximum potential. How do people maintain a get-it-done attitude? They think of themselves as self-employed. If you want to achieve more and build your credibility with followers, adopt that mindset.
  2. They are willing to go the extra mile – Responsible people never protest ‘That’s not my job.’ They are willing to do whatever it takes to complete the work needed by the organisation. If you want to succeed, be willing to put the organisation ahead of your agenda.
  3. They are driven by excellence – Excellence is a great motivator – people who desire excellence and work hard to achieve it, are almost always responsible. When they give their all, they live at peace. Make high quality your goal and responsibility will naturally follow.
  4. They produce regardless of the situation – The ultimate quality of a responsible person is the ability to finish. “It is priceless to find a person who will take responsibility, who will finish and follow through to the final detail – to know when someone has accepted an assignment that will be effectively, conscientiously completed” (Richard L. Evans in An Open Road). If you want to lead, you’ve got to produce. If you are self-aware enough to know you aren’t a finisher, then make sure you partner with or have on your team, someone that is!


“When an archer misses the mark, he turns and looks for the fault within himself. Failure to hit the bulls-eye is never the fault of the target. To improve your aim, improve yourself.”
Gilbert Arland

Are you on target when it comes to responsibility? Do others see you as a finisher? Do people look to you to carry the ball in pressure situations? Are you known for excellence? If you haven’t been performing at the highest level, you may need to cultivate a stronger sense of responsibility.

To improve your responsibility, do the following:

  • Keep hanging in there – Sometimes an inability to deliver despite difficult circumstances can be due to a persistence problem. The next time you find yourself in a situation where you’re going to miss a deadline, lose a deal, or fail to get a project off the ground, stop and figure out how to succeed. Think outside the lines. Can you call a colleague to assist you? Can you hire someone or find a volunteer to assist? Creativity can bring responsibility to life.
  • Admit what’s not good enough – If you have trouble achieving excellence, maybe you’ve lowered your standards. Look at your personal life for places where you’ve let things slip. Then make changes to set higher standards. It will help you to reset the bar of excellence for yourself.
  • Find better tools – If you find that your standards are high, your attitude is good and you consistently put in the work effort – and you still don’t achieve the results you’d like – get better equipped. Improve your skills by taking courses, reading books, watching videos or listening to podcasts. Talk to a coach to uncover the hidden blindspots or barriers in your way. Find a mentor. Do whatever it takes to become better at what you do.
Success on any major scale requires you to accept responsibility…in the final analysis, the one quality that all successful people have is the ability to take on responsibility.
Michael Korda

I invite you to stop for a moment and identify one area where you currently feel stuck and identify what you might take responsibility for in the situation that is leaving you with the experience of being stuck.

Part 16 of our Leadership Series: Leadership is an Inside Job, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader


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