Most of us are naturally adept at deflecting responsibility, especially when things get tricky.
When I was a kid, I'd often tag along with my dad while he was running errands. We lived in a small town with no big-box stores, so we'd typically end up in homey mom-and-pop shops with witty cartoons displayed behind their counters.
During one of these outings, while my dad was chatting with the shop owner, I noticed one particular cartoon that has stuck in my head over the years. It depicted some poor soul wading in a marsh, stalked by alligators. The caption read, "When you're up to your neck in alligators, it's hard to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp!"
Even at twelve years old, I thought it was funny. After all, who hasn't been distracted from a goal by unexpected complications?
But over the years, I've come to see some pretty profound wisdom underneath the soggy surface of that cartoon clipping.
The Trap of "Innocence"
Most of us are naturally adept at deflecting responsibility, especially when things get tricky. This tendency blossoms when we're very young. A child is often quick to explain how their shirt "got dirty" by itself – rather than how they wiped their peanut-butter-and-jelly-covered hands all over it.
By adulthood, we've mastered this art of deflection. In fact, we're so good at dodging responsibility that it almost becomes a reflex. For example, we explain poor performance by pointing to factors outside ourselves. In my 25 years in senior roles at companies like Microsoft and Novartis, and in my executive coaching practice, I hear this all the time.
To be fair, we all fall into this trap. You do it. I do it too.
If we miss our sales target, it's because the economy softened, or our product doesn't deliver its promise. If we're late for a meeting, it's because traffic was terrible. In either case, it's not our fault – it's someone (or something) else's fault. We're merely innocent bystanders falling victim to factors outside our control.
Let's be honest. Innocence feels good. It saves face and avoids guilt. But there's a dark side to this kind of innocence: If you embrace victimhood, then you must also embrace powerlessness. And powerlessness leads to despair.
You can see where this is going, and it's not pretty. It's awful.
Leaders Choose Responsibility. No Matter What.
The truth is, in every situation there are factors outside our control and factors within our control. I challenge you to find an exception.
Imagine you're holding an apple in your outstretched hand, and then you release it. What happens? The apple falls, but why? Gravity acted on it, of course, but you also played a role. You let it go. There were two factors at play, one outside your control (gravity) and one within your control (letting go).
Even the most dire circumstances offer elements that lie within your control. If someone locks you in a dungeon and throws away the key, many things will indeed be outside your control. But some will remain in your control. Most important among them is your ability to choose your response.
Viktor Frankl, the famed Austrian psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz and three other Nazi death camps, wrote in his memoir Man's Search for Meaning, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
Frankl emphasized that there's a gap between stimulus and response, and that gap is our moment of choice. The trick is paying attention to that moment and taking advantage of it to decide what benefits you and the people you care about.
Where Are You Aiming Your Flashlight?
If you're in a pitch-black room, but you have a flashlight, you can use it to light up different parts of the room. You could choose to hold the flashlight's beam on just one spot on the floor. But doing so, you'll miss other things in the room. Maybe there's a treasure chest in that room, or a lost unicorn, or a fresh-baked apple pie.
The point is, what you focus on is your choice – and therefore, within your control.
In any challenging situation, if you focus on the elements outside your control, you'll feel like a victim. In that same situation, if you focus on the factors within your control, you'll feel like – wait for it – a leader.
When the going gets tough, leaders don't focus on what they can't control and thus give up their power. Instead, they light up the whole room and focus on what they can control, namely their choices and ability to respond – and embrace their power. Then they choose the best course of action and take it.
This way of thinking is the leadership mindset. Its distinguishing feature is "response-ability," and it leads to power, peace, and confidence.
You know you're embracing this unconditionally responsible mindset whenever you use "I" language: "I spilled the milk." "I see choices." "I'll make it right." Leaders don't use language that blames circumstances or other people. Instead, they assert their freedom of choice and exercise their agency.
In business and in life, you can expect frequent encounters with scary creatures like alligators and other seemingly threatening distractions. That's just the nature of things.
But when this happens, don't play the helpless victim of circumstance. Instead, get out your flashlight, take a wider look around, and choose how you'll respond. That’s what true leaders do.