Taking Responsibility: Going Back to Leadership Basics

I was first introduced to the principle of “Personal Responsibility” when I attended a number of experiential workshops facilitated by Robert Kiyosaki who is now well known globally as the successful entrepreneurial author of the “Rich Dad Poor Dad” book series. At that time, in the late 1980s, the concept simply involved taking personal responsibility for the role you enact in challenging situations and when solving problems. This principle has since evolved as the crucial foundation for developing peoples’ and teams’ emotionally intelligent, conscious, and transformational leadership capabilities. Based on encouraging people and teams to step up and not blame themselves or others, justify or deny what is really going on, and not defend their position or role in contributing to the problem or situation.

It sounds quite simple, yet, even now, it’s still a countercultural notion, as well as a neurologically challenging one, because we are wired to survive in the face of danger!

Especially when we are living in an oppositional blaming and shaming political environment, or within a passively or aggressively defensive organisational culture, where a large section of the community, has been forced by the Covid 19 pandemic, into seeking to have their security and survival needs to be met, and have collapsed into a scarcity, rather than an abundance mindset.

Where there is no clear playbook about how leaders in this unique 21st-century context are able to authentically connect, empower, and enable people and communities to flourish, as well as provide safe, transparent, and trusted environments where people can potentially thrive.

Back to Leadership Basics

Reminding us that coupled with the range of crises, uncertainty, and amount of emotional disruption we are experiencing now, going back to basic leadership 101 principles, like taking personal responsibility, might enable us to create a new emotionally intelligent, conscious, and transformational leadership playbook. Where leaders are mindful, authentic, and trustworthy, and are able to communicate with clarity, build resilience, and empower and enable others to collaboratively catalyse positive change.

According to McKinsey & Co in a recent article “A Leaders Guide – communicating with teams, stakeholders and communities during Covid 19” –  “Crises come in different intensities. As a “landscape-scale” event, the coronavirus has created great uncertainty, elevated stress and anxiety, and prompted tunnel vision, in which people focus only on the present rather than toward the future. During such a crisis, when information is unavailable or inconsistent, and when people feel unsure about what they know (or anyone knows), behavioural science points to an increased human desire for transparency, guidance, and making sense out of what has happened”.

The Maturity Continuum

Whilst the principle of taking personal responsibility makes sense to many of us, it has evolved and been enhanced significantly since the late 1980s through the work of Steve Covey, in the “Seven Habits of Effective People.”

In the field of transformational and conscious leadership, which has significantly advanced since then, he contextualised a “Maturity Continuum” consisting of a band of three factors:

  • Dependence is the paradigm of you – you take care of me; you come through for me; you didn’t come through for me; I blame you for the results. Dependent and approval-seeking people need others to get what they want.
  • Independence is the paradigm of I – I can do it; I am responsible; I am self-reliant; I can choose. Independent people get what they want through their own efforts.
  • Interdependence is the paradigm of we – we can do it; we can cooperate; we can combine our talents and abilities and create something greater together. Interdependent people combine their efforts with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success.

Putting the maturity continuum to work

In the early 2000s was an associate of Corporate Vision, Australia’s first culture change and transformation consultancy, now the globally successful Walking the Talk organisation, for fourteen years.

Where every culture, leadership, team development, or change program we designed and presented, introduced taking personal responsibility, as a fundamental, core learning principle. It was aligned with the principle of – For things to change first I must change, both of which deeply challenged and disrupted people’s belief systems, habitual mindsets, thinking styles, and ways of acting.

As a seasoned coach of twenty years, these two core principles seem to still profoundly challenge the majority of my coaching clients across the world, no matter how senior their role or position is, or how knowledgeable, skilled, and experienced they are!

Where many leaders have failed to self-regulate, and have unconsciously slipped into feeling victimised, powerless, and in some instances, hopeless, and have become immobilised in their abilities to affect any kind of positive change in both their work and home environments.

Many slip into blaming and shaming others for their situations, justifying their inertia through a range of “reasonable reasons” and “elaborate stories” about how it’s “not their fault” or it’s not “up to them” to make any change. Others will simply deny that either they can or need to take positive actions, or that they have any motivation, control, or power to affect change in their situation.

Why do people avoid taking personal responsibility?

People typically avoid taking personal responsibility for reasons ranging from simple laziness, risk adversity, or a fear of failure, to feeling change fatigued, overwhelmed, or even victimised by the scale of a problem or a situation.

Resulting in a range of different automatic defensive reactive responses including:

  • Avoidant behaviour, where people passively “wriggle” and the buck gets passed onto others, and the real problem or issue does not get addressed or resolved.
  • Controlling behaviour, where people ignore their role in causing or resolving the real problem or issue, and aggressively push others towards their mandate or solution, denying others any agency.
  • Argumentative behaviour, where people play the binary “right-wrong” game, and self-righteously, triggered by their own values, oppose other people’s perspectives in order to be right and make the other person wrong.

These reactive responses often leave people at the effect of what has happened, where their personal power is diminished and they feel minimised and marginalized. They will then disengage from the conversation, relationship, workplace, and in some instances, even from society.

Creating a line of choice

There is one thing that we can all control, and is controllable, which is our mindset – how we think, feel and choose to act. We have a unique moment in time to live more mindfully with clarity, build resilience, empower and enable others and consciously and collaboratively catalyse positive change, and become more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

At Corporate Vision, we added a thick line of “choice” between “personal responsibility” and “blame, justify and deny” to intentionally create space for people to consider taking more emotionally healthy options rather than:

  • Dumping their “emotional boats” inappropriately,
  • Sinking into their habitual, and largely unconscious default patterns when facing complex problems,
  • Not regulating their automatic reactive responses to challenging situations.

To enable them to develop response-ability (an ability to respond), and introduce a more useful option for responding in emotionally agile, considered, constructive, inclusive, and creative ways to the problem or the challenge. Noticing that when we, or others we interact with,  do slip “below the line”, to consciously choose whether to “camp” there for the long term or to simply make a short “visit”- always ensuring that we “call out” others when they do too!

Demonstrating mutual responsibility, ownership and a willingness to be proactive, solutions, and achievement orientated essential qualities for 21st century conscious leadership that results in innovative outcomes that result in success, growth, and sustainability.

Tips for shifting your location – from “you, they and them” to “I, we and us”

Involves supporting people to acknowledge and accept that the problem or challenge is not “out there” and is within their locus of control or influence.

Helping people let go of their expectation that “they” or someone else, from the outside, will fix it, and support them to shift towards a stance where:

  • “I” or “we” can do it,
  • I” or “we” are responsible,
  • “I” of “we” can choose a different way of being, thinking, and acting in this situation.

At any time, all people are either above or below the line, it is elemental to the type of conscious leadership we all need to survive and thrive, in a world where people are seeking leaders and working environments that require interdependence. Seeking to operate in the paradigm of “we” – we can do it; we can cooperate; we can combine our talents and abilities and create something greater together.

Where interdependent people combine their efforts with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success through increasing:

  • Transparency and trust,
  • Achievement and accountability,
  • Diversity and inclusion,
  • Experimentation and collaboration.

All of these are founded on the core principle of taking personal responsibility, through practicing emotionally intelligent conscious leadership. In fact, they are the only “controllables” all of us can control in the face of ongoing uncertainty, accelerating change, and continuous disruption.

This is the first in a series of blogs on the theme of taking responsibility – going back to leadership and team effectiveness basics.


Janet Sernack
Janet Sernack
Janet Sernack is the Founder and CEO of ImagineNation™ a global learning and coaching company that unlocks human potential and develops human skills that enable people to adapt, innovate and grow through disruption in ways that add value to the quality of people’s lives, that are appreciated and cherished by: Empowering people to tolerate uncertainty, and be receptive and ready to make radical changes individually and collectively; Enabling people to make sense of innovation, develop a common understanding and language and apply and align it strategically and systemically in their unique context; Opening people to their innovation potential, igniting their imagination, developing their human skills and harnessing their collective intelligence to design and deliver breakthrough solutions; Empowering people to take smart risks, safely experiment, fail fast to learn quickly and collaborate to cohesively maximize differences and diversity in their unique context. She has 35 years of experience consulting and leading culture development, change management, leadership, innovation education, and coaching interventions to some of Australasia’s, Canada’s, and Israel’s top 100 companies.  Acknowledged as a global thought leader on the people side of innovation, she is an award-winning blogger, an ICF PCC coach, an EMCC Master Practitioner, and is a Professionally Certified Coach for Innovators, Mbit and NLP coach, mentor, trainer, and facilitator.  

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