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Perspectives: The Challenge of Accepting Responsibility

Last week, I described celebrity chef Paula Deen’s challenge of reclaiming her brand given some of her embarrassing and shocking statements about slavery and race. However, one of the larger issues in the Deen case involves her inability to initially understand and accept full responsibility for her egregious comments, even though she has tried to do it later on. This is not an isolated case. All of us, particularly those in leadership positions, struggle with accepting responsibility for our mistakes. But as leadership guru John Maxwell says, “A leader can give up anything — except final responsibility.”

There are many reasons why it is so difficult to accept responsibility, and many involve our natural tendency to defend ourselves from criticism. Some involve our ego and the misguided sense that admitting our mistakes and taking responsibility makes us look weak in the eyes of others when more often, the opposite is true.

We see it in business, in government and in our personal lives every day. Mistakes are made — sometimes really dumb mistakes — and those in charge who struggle to take responsibility are often more concerned about who they can point the finger at, or how they can deflect blame by confusing the facts. Further, they try to justify or over-communicate why the mistake was made by listing all the reasons why it wasn’t their fault. It doesn’t make us bad people by doing it, but it often makes a bad situation that much worse.

While it is easy to say others should be more willing to accept responsibility, we should start by asking ourselves why we haven’t been willing to do so.

Consider this example. I am currently teaching courses on crisis management and leadership at NYU and NJIT. But early in my teaching career, I was lecturing at another university in the field of crisis communication. After the course, the dean of the program informed me that a few students felt I was “too aggressive” in my teaching style, which made them feel “uncomfortable” and “defensive.”

My immediate response was to defend myself and explain that because it was a course in crisis communication, the problem must be with students who needed to “toughen up” if they were going to survive in business.

But here is the problem with this response. If certain students had that reaction and were less likely to participate in the class, it was my responsibility to create an environment in which they felt comfortable to try new and challenging communication techniques and approaches. Simply put, I failed in that regard and refused to initially accept responsibility for my role in that process. It was only until I took a closer look at my teaching and communication style that I realized I needed to make some changes, which I ultimately incorporated into future courses.
But again, I was initially unwilling to accept responsibility for my actions because I was being defensive (and maybe a bit arrogant) in thinking, “I can’t believe I’m being criticized.” But that is the wrong approach for any of us in a leadership position.
Criticism and feedback go with the territory. We must fight the urge to allow our instinct to be defensive and protective of our own ego and ultimately accept responsibility. If we are able to do that, we will continue to improve and grow and the payoff will be huge.

Why do you think it is so difficult for so many leaders to accept responsibility when things go wrong? Write to me at sadubato@aol.com

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