“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
— John Steinbeck
Ok, ready for some sweetness.
Are you stalled in a project at work, waiting on someone else to take initiative to get things moving? Are you in a broken professional relationship — with a manager, coworker, or employee — hoping the other person assumes blame and fixes the issue? Are you looking for an easy way to get focused or improve your productivity — a silver bullet from an unexpected source?
One of the most common momentum killers I’ve seen in my professional life is our propensity to wait for someone else to act, take initiative, assume blame, or take charge. But very often, no help comes.
One year ago, I heard Tal Ben-Shahar speak about this concept; he learned it from Nathaniel Branden, the father of the self-esteem movement. According to Ben-Shaher, Branden believed that taking responsibility was the first step to developing a healthy sense of self and that we internalize the idea of taking responsibility when we realize, “no one is coming.”
It’s a liberating concept. Help is not coming. The responsibility is yours, and it starts with developing a belief or habit of mind that you, as an individual, are accountable for the quality and timeliness of an outcome, even when you’re working with others. It doesn’t always mean you have authority over a project. Nor does it mean that you shouldn’t involve others. But it does mean you own the obligation to take action and deliver results.
This may be particularly important for young leaders, often characterized as a coddled generation. Millennials are history’s most educated generation and often come from smaller families where helicopter parents watched over them carefully. Many managers perceive them as needing guidance, structure, and constant feedback. And in a world of political and financial bailouts, they (and other generations) may begin to see personal, professional, and social problems as issues for others to solve.
But leaders of all ages could afford to act as if help is not coming more often. And doing so may start with three simple points of understanding.
First, by recognizing the difference between fault and responsibility, we can eschew the blame game and take ownership of difficult problems. Very early in my first year of business school, we were discussing whether an executive in a case study was to blame for a problem in his company and whether fixing it was his responsibility. Many of us were conflating the two terms: fault and responsibility. A classmate, Curt, pointed out, “There’s a big difference between fault and responsibility. A leader may be responsible for a situation even if it’s not his fault. The blame doesn’t matter.”
Often, we have to deal with situations for which we’re not at fault. But fault is backward-looking, and responsibility is forward-looking. Fixating on blame delays taking corrective action and inhibits learning. Focusing on responsibility offers a sense of peace.
Honda CEO Takanobu Ito may be demonstrating that concept in real time with his recent actions after the release of the new Honda Civic quickly fell short of expectations. Sales dropped 15%. Ito took decisive action, publicly assuming full responsibility for the model’s reception. The origination of the failed concept — his or not — did not matter. All that mattered was claiming ownership of the issue and charting a path forward. Honda quickly followed up by announcing a new release for 2013, a year ahead of the original plan. In the words of executive vice president John Mendel, “…the comments of Consumer Reports and our customers have not gone unnoticed. We are appropriately energized.”
Second, as the above example alludes, this ownership can free us to drive results. In the environments in which I’ve worked, the most productive people and those most likely to succeed were those who were proactive about finding and solving problems, and comfortable acting with increasing autonomy and decreased oversight. Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” All of us can think of many times when the leaders we admired declined to wait for help and instead pioneered solutions. It’s only when we, as individuals, take full responsibility for a problem that we focus our full attention on it and feel the pressure we need to drive results.
Finally, by owning a problem and taking action, we can help others. A few months ago, I started picking up a new snack bar at my local Starbucks, produced by the unusually named Two Moms in the Raw. The story of its founder, Shari Leidich is a great example of this concept. In 2004, Leidich, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. According to Entrepreneur.com, shortly after starting treatment, an herbalist advised her to start a raw food diet, but when she did, she found that most of the products were unappetizing. So she made her own. Soon friends and family were requesting so many of her products that she could no longer give them away. By 2006, she was making products for sale, and in 2010, Two Moms in the Raw had revenues of more than $1 million. Leidich saw that there was not a good solution for someone cooking for a healthy, appetizing, raw food snack, so she took responsibility for making one, and in the process, created something that may help thousands of others in the process.
In a world where problems are getting more complex, determined and innovative problem-solving will flow from those who live as if help is not coming. Living with responsibility can make us stronger and more action-oriented individuals. It’s up to you to make change and take responsibility for outcomes in your professional life. What are you waiting for?
L.P. JACKS (1860-1955) was an English Unitarian minister and philosopher:
“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both. Enough for him that he does it well.”
Post written by Leo Babauta.
Many of us go through our days awake, but following patterns we’ve developed over the years. We are going through the motions, doing things at home, online, at work without much forethought.
Contrast this with the idea of an Intentional Life: everything you do is done with consciousness, fulfilling one of your core values (compassion, for example). Everything is done with a conscious intent.
It’s true that many things we do have some kind of intent — I’m washing the dishes because I don’t want a messy house or bugs in my kitchen; I’m driving to work because I need to make a living; I’m driving my kids to school because they need to learn. But after repeating these actions every day, the intent kind of fades into the background so that we are barely aware of them. We’ve figured out the intent long ago, and don’t need to think about them anymore.
What if that changed?
What if you were very aware of your intention for your actions? How would that transform the action, and your life?
What if you washed the dishes, but first said you are doing this as a service to your family, to make them happy, and as a form of meditation for yourself, to practice mindfulness? Doing the dishes would suddenly take on much more importance, and would cease to be boring.
The only difference is intention.
What if driving to work was done after mentally declaring an intention to help others at work, to make people happy, to find satisfaction through work? The drive might be much happier, and you might be less likely to get irate when someone inevitably cuts you off in traffic.
This is the Intentional Life.
I practice it in bits and pieces — not all the time, but increasingly. When I do it, my life is different. More purposeful, more consciously lived, more content with any action.
A simple practice of intentionality: before you do the next action online or at work, pause a moment, close your eyes, and mentally say your intention. Why are you doing this? Is it out of compassion for others, or yourself? Is it to make someone happier? To improve the world? Out of gratitude for the work and kindness of others?
And then, as you do the action, be mindful of your intention.
This is a small step, but in those few moments, you will be living an Intentional Life.