I once worked with the CEO of a hospital who took responsibility for personally ensuring that every single piece of furniture purchased would fit the hospital’s existing decor. Now, to be fair, the decor was a little different from other health care facilities and had a relationship to brand. But it was difficult to imagine that only the CEO had the good sense to keep the design congruent. When I asked him about it, and how his control over furniture decisions might be viewed by his senior team members, he was a bit embarrassed, but he also quickly added that he saw this as his “personal responsibility.” He even acknowledged the lack of trust in others’ judgment that was involved. Nevertheless, he didn’t stop the practice — and I sensed that he could not actually do so — at least not very easily.
I’ve always believed something more goes on in such situations than a simple bad habit of micro-management. The most telling clue in his explanation seemed to be in that line about personal responsibility. Call it what you will, perfectionism, the need to be right, the lack of trust, and maybe some of what legendary executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith, calls the need to “add too much value,” the problem seems to really be a form of double-think, a blind spot in which responsibility becomes exactly its opposite, an abdication. How clever we are to call it personal responsibility, making ourselves believe we are doing our job as a leader precisely by not doing it.
This is similar to procrastination — where I get busy with something else in order to avoid doing the thing I know I actually need to do. Covering all that up by calling it “responsible” seals the whole thing against self-knowledge. I feel responsible at the same time I’m actually avoiding some aspect of my responsibilities.
This seems to point to a whole class of leadership failures — where our capacities for self-deception work to help us maintain our self-esteem and confidence while contributing to enterprise discord and potential decline. In the case of the hospital CEO, he was also struggling with a significant downturn in the economy and competition from other institutions — and didn’t have a plan. The furniture thing, ironically, was a little like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
When a sense of personal responsibility also becomes an abdication, it works against the leader getting his or her act together. For example, I know of an extremely well-intended leader in charge of a fast-paced small business who, in a martyred way, sent out emails at 3:00 or 4:00 AM to her staff based on the extra work she was taking home. “I don’t want them [her employees] to have to do it,” the leader would say to me. When I spoke with some of the employees, a number of them complained about the guilt the leader induced through this process and also how untrusted they felt. It seemed clear to everyone that the leader was up nights doing tasks she had no business doing instead of addressing the chaotic company systems that were a duct-taped mess. There was no time for anyone to fix the things that caused the lack of time to fix things — a very vicious cycle.
In a third example, I similarly coached a man who stayed at the office to do those early morning emails and complete other work he couldn’t get done during the day. It was destroying his family and his boss also felt he wasn’t doing the right things or being efficient as a manager. What wasn’t he getting done? Well, for one thing, he’d neglected to file his tax returns for several years and his wife was getting very worried about it. And for another, he wasn’t addressing thorny interpersonal and performance issues in his team and with his peers.
How can you stop this stuff, if you are one of these leaders who, untrustingly, must take on too much responsibility in order to prevent some bad, irresponsible thing from happening — and in so doing inadvertently facilitate bad things happening?
The first lesson is that you may not be able to stop by simply telling yourself to. As easy as it sounds, to stop reviewing the furniture purchase or doing work at 3:00 AM, discipline alone might not be enough.
Rather, you have to get to the causes. And those causes are often very personal. A deeper discussion with the hospital CEO revealed emotional insecurities from his past, as a similar discussion did for the small business owner, while the guy in danger of losing his family simply saw himself as “a good boy scout” who constantly had to keep a “beach bum” alter ego under control. The point is that the “responsible” behavior had antecedents that fostered the blind spot. The leaders’ compulsive behaviors all seemed to be driven by what I call, “a worthiness machine” that goes something like this: as long as I see myself as being responsible, I’m okay — not scared, not insecure, not anxious. In turn, this makes it impossible for me to look at the larger picture. To do so would cause me to experience the overwhelming anxiety of facing the other unaddressed responsibilities — that I’m not sure I can fulfill. Thus — just for now — I focus on something else and I keep my blindness intact. Of course “just for now” (until the crisis is over, until we get through the quarter, or the project, or meet the next deadline) becomes not only my abdication, but also my addiction.
It’s a really narrow, hard mindset that doesn’t understand how merely being responsible is not the same as leading. And it’s very unforgiving, filled with inner critics, material threats, chain link fences with barking dogs. When a person can finally acknowledge that inner system, see how controlling it is, how destructive it is to one’s piece of mind and full value, things can gradually change. The hospital CEO eventually got help with making a plan (unfortunately a little late, causing the place to layoff a third of their managers). The owner of the small business decided to sell and move on. And the good boy scout, with the support of his boss and family, learned to give his beach bum its due by taking a day to go skiing once a week and getting assistance with the taxes — in turn giving him more energy to deal with the workplace issues he’d avoided.
Facing stuff is always hard, but the anxiety probably won’t kill you. A little self-compassion and self-care can help you through. Confidence comes from facing, rather than avoiding the challenge. And the syndrome doesn’t mean that everything you are doing is wrong. Being responsible is a good thing. Just don’t let it replace the larger picture of what you must do to lead or to become the more complete person you are meant to be.
Link to blog posting.
Link to Oestreich Associates website.
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