Responsibility as Abdication

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.


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  • Dan,
    Wonderful post for it captures something most of us have seen at least one in our careers.

    I like the way you posit different “reasons why” (to which I might stress fear of failure or fear of losing control) — yet in the end you focus on the outcome of it.

    All I would add to this post is that these “leaders” who suffer from this disorder acted like this before they had the title of leader.

    I often wonder who promoted them — someone just like them?

    Or was it a leader who wanted so much to find a highly responsible person for leadership that they never thought to ask “Can this person lead?” or only do it all themselves?

    I see high level leaders turning a blind eye to this behavior when it occurs on their leadership team — and in that they are abdicating their responsibility to coach or move these control types into a different position.

    Great post and I will share with many others for it is not as rare as we might think!

    Warmest regards,

  • Hi Kate

    Thank you for your great observations and insights. I am totally with you. These folks had these patterns long before they were placed in leadership and management roles. They are OLD patterns. And yet, bridging to your next question about who promoted them, they are there.

    Unfortunately, I often sense that there was a kind of hubris on the part of the appointing authority. “I know it when I see it” rather than a realistic assessment — and real dialogue — about the capacity to lead. The “know it when I see it” crowd responds to a sense of responsibility as if it will serve them, but that does not actually mean they know whether someone else can lead. Then when there’s a problem, it feels like a betrayal of the intuitions that drove the choice, and that, too, can feed the syndrome — for the boss.

    And so the cycle continues, based on fear about the lapse of judgment. How do I fix this? As if it only the person’s fault, and not their boss’ as well.

    Very tough. We want to believe in our judgment — and when it fails, it hurts to know that our best efforts to be insightful, to add value in the choice of someone to fill a leadership role, shows the vulnerability and capacity to fail of those who are supposed to lead at a higher level.

    Such is the nature of hierarchy and formal authority based on position, privilege and advantage, rather than a sense of what’s real and part of the human cause.

    Thank you again, Kate. I so much appreciate your willingness to engage the conversation and offer your experience and your refined truth. All too little time is spent on calling it out just the way it is!

    Many best wishes

  • Great distinction Dan — the appointing authority thinks they will serve them yet doesn’t know if they can lead.

    That’s it!

  • Thanks for this post, Dan. Just reading it helped me further my self-knowledge in this area. As my startup has grown from just me to me + seventeen, I am learning this lesson the hard way. It was a hard pill to swallow, a few months, ago, when I realized that I was a poor leader. I was taking on work instead of spending time creating the right environment for others in the organization to do the work they were hired to do. What I believed was “setting an example” was incredibly disempowering to those whose work I took on.

    Like it is said, when the student is ready the teacher appears, I have had several learning moments since that first realization In fact, yesterday I got more work done that I could do alone, by delegating and providing support to my colleagues at work. I am beginning to see that learning to work with a team, placing trust in them, and helping them learn what I am good at; these make me a better leader.

    The point I want to add to your post, in addition to the enriching discussion that you and Kate are having, is that, in startups entrepreneurs often have leadership thrust upon them whether or not they are be a good leader. Self-knowledge is helping me to change some old patterns. Yet, getting to know myself is a serious commitment, and a commitment that has been hard to make in an environment full of immediate and urgent things to do. I believe that most entrepreneurs in a start-up are faced with this situation.

    The question I am left processing is – what does it take for another person like me to see the old pattern, the blind spot? Can an organization do something about this?

  • Hi Santhan. Thank you for your kind comments about this post and your openness about your own experience and self-work as a leader.

    Your question is an excellent one. At one level, it is the sort of question that we can all “staple to our foreheads” and live with and live into as a way of learning. The question itself has MAGNITUDES.

    At a more everyday level, however, let me see if I can offer a couple of thoughts. First, what it takes is the willingness to acknowledge that who you think you are is only part of who you fully are. Your story of “setting an example” is a perfect instance of this. And that process of learning that self-perception is not the whole story, I believe, goes on for a lifetime. Those who cannot acknowledge that they may be casting a shadow or possess blind spots never fully actualize their leadership and may damage others and the organization in the process.

    So how do you find out what these blind spots are? In all three of the situations reported in this post — and in the vast majority of other client work I’ve done — the blind spot was deeply apparent to others. The reason for this is that others feel the impact directly. The person with the blind spot, acting out the old patterns, does not. So a meaningful practice for any leader is to ask about his or her impact regularly, and to make it safe for others to share their feedback by showing a real willingness to learn. The best leaders I’ve worked with have mastered this skill and often used it, not only for personal learning, but also to create larger dialogues about the culture and systems of their teams and workplaces.

    In essence, I am saying there are three steps: 1) the leader begins by acknowledging imperfection — that he or she may be standing in the way of the very things he or she believes are most important; 2) the leader learns to ask for feedback and create the psychological safety and trust essential for others to actually provide that feedback; and 3) the leader uses this data to overturn old patterns and blind spots. What’s most critical is the leader’s capacity to see his or her own impact on others and on the organization. When that impact is felt deeply and openly enough, by-passing the leader’s ego system and natural defensive desire for self-protection, the natural process of growth takes over. All these things depend, as J. Krishnamurti suggests, on one essential capability:

    “To be able to look…seems to me all that is needed, because if we know how to look, then the whole thing becomes very clear, and to look needs no philosophy, no teacher. Nobody need tell you how to look. You just look.”

    I am convinced that leaders that lose their credibility most often are those who do not know how to look or refuse to do so. But those who do, constantly refining the skill, do without thinking the very thing you set out to accomplish with your own enterprise — set an example.

    Many best wishes to you and thanks for stopping by and taking time to comment, Santhan. And thank you for the opportunity to clarify my own thinking in the process!


  • Hi Dan, thank you very much! The care and effort in your reply has left me feeling grateful.

    I found the three step process insightful and applicable to my current situation. I am energized and eager to begin doing this.

    We have an important partner’s meet today. It’s the last (I hope) of a series of meetings that looked back at our 2 year journey, to discover our shared purpose.

    Looking back we realized that we have been paying a lot of attention to the personal journey of each member of the company. More so at the partner level.

    We have been engaging in feedback sessions which are meant to be compassionate mirrors of our blindspots. It rings so true when you say that the blindspots are painfully obvious to others. We’ve jumped into these conversations knowing intuitively that they are vital, and these conversations, often constrained by our ability to create a safe space and our individual capacities to see without defense, have been the most difficult, frustrating conversations we’ve had. Paradoxically, despite the frustration, these conversations have strengthened our bonds. However, I have been a little troubled by the lack of structure in these conversations.

    I am so excited by the possibilities of designing a structured process around the 3 steps you’ve written about. I believe these steps may become deeply integrated into our company’s being.

    How do you feel about me sharing this insight with my partners, and adapting it for our use?

    in deep regard

  • Santhan

    I applaud the courage and patience of your group, and of course it’s just fine to relay information from this blog post to your colleagues.

    Such conversations can be tough, and — in addition to the three points mentioned above — I’ve often found the following approaches valuable, even when people are truly operating in good faith.

    1. It’s helpful to separate facts from perceptions from feelings. Facts are what everybody agrees are facts. Everything else is a perception or feeling. Agreeing on the facts, then identifying perceptions, then talking about the feelings driven by facts and perceptions is often a useful and more deliberate way to contain emotional material.

    2. It’s helpful to separate behaviors from interpretations of behavior. For example, I keep the door to my office closed — that’s a behavior (you know it’s a behavior because it can be observed as if on videotape). Others draw the conclusion that I’m doing that because I think I’m better than other people — that’s an interpretation. If you are getting feedback that suggests a certain behavior is a problem, try to find out what interpretations have been placed on it. If you are getting feedback that seems like pure interpretation, try to find out what behaviors are driving it. Then paraphrase, “So, if I am understanding you right, people believe my closed door means I think I am better than others.” Then you have choices in your response. You may wish to keep your door open, or you may wish to talk about why it is closed. And you can also reflect on whether there is some truth to the interpretation that you need to acknowledge.

    3. It’s helpful for each person to understand their defensive style and how these styles interact with one another in team settings. You and your team might benefit from reading and, especially, completing the “wheel diagram” exercises in this paper. Note that the focus in doing this work is dealing with our own internal labels and observations of our own behavior more than labeling the behaviors of others. Sharing the data from this exercise with one another can be a good start toward understanding some of your team dynamics. Note also the “leadership questions” section in the paper, as it is related to the next point.

    4. It’s helpful to understand that people do not change according to what others wish they would do but according to their own inner desire to be the person they want to be. Therefore, asking for feedback should be about the things a person wants to know about him/herself and how he/she is operating as a leader. Sessions where people help each other with their self-inquiries build a sense of deep community much better and faster than ones based on individuals simply voicing to others what they believe is wrong with them. This is a central principle in my own team and individual coaching practice.

    You can download this paper that I wrote many years ago about asking for feedback. I hope you and your team find it helpful.

    Many best regards, Santhan, and if I can help further, please feel free to email me.


  • Dan, thank you! This is very generous.

    I really like the distinctions between fact and feeling, and, behavior and interpretation. I can sense how these will bring a much-needed objectivity to our conversations.

    I have downloaded both papers and will spend time going through them. I will get back to you by email if I have any questions.


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