Responsibility: The Key to Effective Leadership

   The late, prolific U.S. Air Force General Curtis E. LeMay was fond of saying that if he had to come up with one word to define leadership, it would be "responsibility."

   He could not have been more right.

   The main concept of responsibility is that you are being entrusted by a higher authority to care for something or someone—and along with this trust comes the blessings associated with doing it well or the consequences of doing it poorly.  To embrace responsibility means cultivating and protecting those things you are immediately accountable for in your surroundings. Be it as a parent, pastor, politician, or in any role you may fulfill.     


   But for all this talk about the importance of accepting responsibility, why is it so many leaders today seem so quick to pass the proverbial ‘buck’? Instead of stepping up to take ownership for their thoughts, actions, results, or relationships, it seems scores of leaders are more interested in blaming others for their limitations, inadequacies, struggles, or problems then they are accepting responsibility for themselves or their situations.

   Of course, it hasn’t always been this way.

   Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third President of the United State, made the concept of accepting responsibility the cornerstone of his presidency. In fact, he believed so much in this concept that he had the saying, ‘the buck stops here,’ prominently displayed on his desk in the Oval Office. In an address at the National War College on December 19, 1952 Mr. Truman once famously said, "You know, it's easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you…the decision has to be made."

   In simple terms, this straightforward four word phrase is designed to remind us that as leaders, we must be willing to own our circumstances. No matter how uncomfortable or unpopular they may be. Of course, I understand this isn’t easy. But easy and leadership are not intended to go together. So if you are serious about leading well, be it in your home, workplace, worship space or community, then consider heeding these four simple rules any time you are faced with a decision: 

Defer It: Not every decision has to be made immediately. In fact, you should be careful about making decisions too quickly. And although I know there may be times when haste is warranted, those moments are far more the exception than the rule. What’s important is to make a conscious choice to get after it now or readdress it later. Intentionally deferring a decision declares to everyone around you that you’re not ignoring what must be done, it’s just not the right time, place, or circumstance to deal with this situation now.  

Delegate It: The best leaders recognize they are most effective when they do only those things which only they could and should do. Unfortunately, many leaders fall into the trap of believing the only way to ensure something gets done to their satisfaction is to do it themselves. So they delegate nothing and try to control everything. And the result is often an inferior outcome, missed delivery date, and a dissatisfied and disenfranchised workforce. Don’t go there. Instead, commit to following former President Theodore Roosevelt’s oft-stated notion that the best leader are those with “…sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” Although spoken almost a century ago, the wisdom of these words still holds true today. Choose to be an effective delegator and not a perpetual meddler and watch productivity and satisfaction in your surroundings skyrocket!

Drop It: Not everything has to get done. In fact, it has been my personal experience on more occasions than I’d like to admit that when we try to handle everything that comes our way we effectively become paralyzed in place. This is why it’s as important to accept responsibility for determining what you are not going to do as it is deciding what you will do. So get real about what’s just not worth doing and have the courage to drop it. You’ll find it will liberate you to invest your time, talent and energy in those areas where you can add the greatest value to your surroundings.     

Do It: Hockey great Wayne Gretzky once shared how “procrastination is one of the most common and deadliest diseases and its toll on success and happiness is heavy.” By taking the time to honestly assess if it’s best to defer, delegate or drop a decision, you demonstrate you’re not only unafraid to make a decision, you communicate you’re willing to own the outcomes of that decision.     

   Accepting responsibility as a leader means the buck stops with you. You are being counted on to be responsible for your work. You must own what you do. One of my favorite passages on the value of generously accepting responsibility in our roles as leaders comes from Andy Andrews marvelous book, The Travelers Gift, in which he writes:

“When faced with the opportunity to make a decision, I will make one…The rise and fall of my emotional tide will not deter me from my course. When I make a decision, I will stand behind it. My energy will go into making the decision. I will waste none on second thoughts. My life will not be an apology. It will be a statement…I accept responsibility for my past. I control my thoughts. I control my emotions. I am responsible for my success. ...The buck stops here.”

Becoming the kind of leader you want to be and others deserve to see begins by accepting responsibility for the decisions you make, good, bad, or indifferent. When you routinely do this, watch what happens. Others will want to work with you, around you and for you. This is what effective leadership is all about. And it begins with you.

The Buck Stops Here -


This post is derived from John Michel’s forthcoming book, Mediocre Me: How Saying No to the Status Quo Will Propel You from Ordinary to Extraordinary, in bookstores 12 March 2013. You can pre-order it now at a great discount on Amazon or other online retailers.  

 John E. Michel is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. An accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster, he has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts and his award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible and is married to the most patient person on the planet. Together, they are blessed with two amazing sons. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website,