Responsibility is a trait that inevitably accompanies the awesome privilege of serving people. Taking responsibility is more than just saying that you do (or that you should have) when things go wrong. For leaders, it also involves preventative maintenance to promote personal and collective excellence. Of course, few people believe that they are irresponsible. The key is to grow in responsibility, not by taking on more tasks, but by developing the capacity to take on the right ones and to do this well. Here’s how.
Logically, for leaders, a ‘responsibility capacity’ is reproduced in others as a function of our own good leadership. The following keys are great for our own leadership, but only to the extent that they are also reproducible. Otherwise, our own growth in responsibility reaches a ceiling and, ironically, becomes irresponsible. Consider, therefore, how these might develop in you and in those you lead.
1. ‘The Right Rocks’ are the right tasks at the right times.
The well-known Stephen Covey principle says we put the ‘big rock’ priorities into our lives first, so that the pebbles and then the sand-like smaller ones will fit better. Too much sand first means not enough pebbles or rocks fit later. Ultimately, though, we need the right rocks in the jar of life first. Apart from obvious ones, such as key relationships and calling, many others are specific to people and their roles. Coaching helps to identify these.
Most inexperienced or ineffective leaders already have many key rocks in place, but not enough of the big ones. For Christian leaders prayer cannot be pebble-sized! Neither can vision-casting or developing the leadership and skills of others. But what do these look like for you when your role differs to the role of other leaders? The right rocks are not just time priorities but also task priorities and we need to be doing the right tasks at the right time.
We naturally want to be able to shape roles to suit our own strengths. Whether in teams or as individuals, though, we all need to do things we don’t like and can be prone to mere avoidance or procrastination. But we can’t excuse ourselves from underperformance if this causes a negative impact in others, especially if effectiveness depends on our own leadership. Where causes such as discouragement or an inability to address issues exist, outside help is desperately needed.
But where culture issues, dysfunction, negativity or slackness need dealing with, it is we who need the courage and determination to act. Even our own failure in smaller tasks such as completing paperwork, returning calls or honouring deadlines can frustrate team members and generate (or contribute to) the very issues that then become the larger problems.
Just replacing sand with pebbles and pebbles with rocks won’t work, either, unless we can grow our capacity to hold them. This, of course, has its limits. Even when we delegate tasks and multiply leaders, we will still be busy, so we still need to ensure we have all of the right rocks for us in our life.
2. ‘Intentional Followership’ enhances good leadership, whatever our role may be.
It is easy to feel that people who lead above you don’t really know your role (or maybe theirs!) as well as you do and that they are somehow stifling your progress. Sometimes that may even be true, but they can still be vital to your own growth, so don’t bite (or spurn) the hand that feeds you. Running away won’t help either, because what needs to grow in you will still need to grow elsewhere. God puts us in situations from which He wants us to learn.
Assuming no fatal character flaws or deficiencies in those leaders above you, there is the possibility of helping your own leadership by ‘leading up’ through greater personal usefulness, clever questions and showing initiative (without also taking credit). But sometimes you just need to submit yourself to following a different vision with greater humility and respect, leading where you are with faithfulness and followership working in tandem for the blessing of Psalm 133.
All too many people miss the positives and differences that they need to learn from the person who usually didn’t get to where they are by accident. By honouring that leader, we show our own teams and others how we ought to be honoured. Whatever our role, followership improves our leadership.
Leaders can, by nature, be confident and creative and this can get them too far ahead of themselves. Good followership extracts the major supportive benefit, covering and blind-spot-monitoring from a primary resource and from a person whose support will often help us grow in ways we don’t believe (or don’t want to believe) are important.
Disloyalty and disunity are also momentum killers that involve personal choices. Finger-pointing and deflection – whether public or private – mark an immaturity that lacks humility. Even the quieter ‘rebellion of niceness’ that politely ignores and sidesteps all but the most explicit instructions is still obvious to onlookers.
It is often wise to ask leaders you serve under how they find it having you on their team! Now that tells a story. It invites honesty, but it also reveals a security in yourself to ask it.
3. ‘Final Responsibility’ means more than just being a responsible person.
It may seem contradictory to say this, but a key to being responsible in leadership is to be finally responsible. Though we all need basic accountability and parameters, some leaders are constantly asking permission or guidance of leaders above them on matters they need to be thinking through more consciously themselves. Others are keeping full commitment at bay so as not to be shouldered with the very opportunity that they push back as a burden rather than a joy.
Shirking something that is unforeseen or unpleasant also gives a problem to someone else. Romans 12:8 tells leaders to lead with diligence!
Responsible leaders make short-term sacrifices for longer-term reliability, even flexing on other priorities where needed. Agreeing to do something and then not doing it well is simply reckless.
Delegating to others who let you down and then blaming them (rather than merely explaining the situation while actually taking the blame upon yourself or the whole team) is also poor form.
In 2 Timothy 2:3-4, Christians are encouraged to think of themselves as being in the Lord’s army. A military commander once told me that a secret of the staggering force of the German blitzkrieg was that the Nazis fostered cohesion by forgiving mistakes, but never irresponsibility.
Naturally the Christian church is an army of love and not militancy, strict hierarchies or rigid rules. But the principles of accountability, submission and unified purpose all presume a respect that befits a life first yielded to Christ. A starting value of respect given to leaders, and not just earned, would indeed showcase radical love in a society that so often lacks responsibility, purpose and hope.