It’s All My Fault! (Or Is It?)
Recently, I found myself bemoaning the state of affairs in a particular circle of mine. It’s a circle in which I once held a leadership role. A circle that still matters to me and that I still keep tabs on, even though my tenure has been over for a long time now.
As I was reflecting on how things were before and during my time of leadership, I found myself focusing a lot on what hadn’t worked. As is the case in any system, there had been challenges, of course. My role, as I understood it, was to see those challenges, and do what could be done to rectify them -- or at least enlist the support of others in doing so. Which I did. The fact is, however, some of the challenges just never truly went away. And as I sat in reflection, I heard myself saying, “it’s all my fault” -- in various forms.
“I should have seen that coming.”
“How did I miss that?”
“Why didn’t I do THIS instead?”
“What exactly was I thinking?”
“Why did I ignore my gut?”
And on, and on, and on.
At first I didn’t recognize the slippery slope down which I was travelling. I didn’t see the way in which I was boxing myself into a shame-and-blame space, and how I was holding myself responsible for things that were OUT OF MY CONTROL, things that weren’t mine to hold.
Luckily, I have a husband who’s pretty damn astute -- and was able to point it out for me. He reminded me that while it was true that certain things didn’t turn out as I would have liked, it wasn’t actually ME who was responsible for the outcome. While hindsight was showing me things that I could have done differently, the fact was that in the moment, I had made the best decisions for the circle, with the support of my team (a key point). Every. Single. Time.
The thing is, I knew that. I still know that. And, what I realized as I looked at other leaders I know -- especially leaders who are fully invested in the work of their team and the impact of their decisions -- is that it’s a very fine line between taking responsibility for what is happening, and engaging in self-blame.
It’s important to note that there’s also a fine line between holding one’s team accountable for what’s happening and blaming them. I think it’s this last point that has leaders often gravitate to the trap of self-blame; they don’t want to be seen as blaming others, so they blame themselves in the name of accountability. But that’s not really accountability at all.
Another factor that can contribute to twisted interpretations of leadership accountability is this: as the leader, you are the one who fields concerns. When folks have a problem, they come to you. And they come to you expecting that you will find a solution. It’s easy to take this on as YOUR PARTICULAR responsibility; in actual fact, however, your actual responsibility isn’t to find that solution on your own, necessarily; it is, instead, to ensure that a solution is found, and often the best way to do that is to enlist the support of others. It’s not helpful when you carry the weight of problems on your shoulders alone.
It has been said that great leaders give credit to others and take blame on themselves. Personally, I disagree. I think great leaders hold themselves AND their teams accountable in the best sense of that word. They share responsibility when things are going right as well as when things aren’t going so well. They face problems alongside their team -- even the problems that have been brought to their attention alone -- and source solutions in that same collaborative way. They absolutely give credit to others and acknowledge their own role in their team’s success. Great leaders do NOT try to do everything on their own, they don’t wallow in self-blame, and they do not take either credit or blame for what is outside of their control.
Bottom-line: in an effort to be responsible, we can sometimes slip into the trap of trying to fly solo or beating ourselves up. Even for things that we had no control over. It’s time to recognize these traps for what they are, and stand solidly in the land of accountability instead. When we as leaders can model true accountability, sharing both credit and responsibility, we build engaged and committed teams. And that is where our true responsibility lies.