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Taking Responsibility For Your Actions (By Pepper de Callier)

Throughout history talented and effective leaders have known that taking responsibility for their actions, especially ones that have less than desirable outcomes, sends a powerful message of character and maturity to those who follow them.  Conversely, in the eyes of leaders, the same holds true for their subordinates.  This is how decisions are made regarding the assignment of key projects, promotions and whether someone can be trusted or not. Without doubt, one of the most powerful messages anyone can send about their character is whether or not they take responsibility for their actions.  This is a lesson I learned many years ago as a young boy and I’ll never forget its impact.

I was 5 years old and to this day I remember it was a Saturday afternoon.  My mother asked me to join her on what was a monthly shopping trip into town from our home in the countryside. I always enjoyed going into town with her because it usually meant a special treat like a stop at the candy store on the way home.  On this particular day, I remember approaching the entrance to L.S. Ayres & Co., a wonderful old department store we frequented.  In my excitement to get inside the store and to see all the treasures that awaited me, I ran in front of an elderly woman as she reached for the handle of the revolving door and pushed my way into the store.    

Once inside the store, I looked back to see where my mother was.  She was in the revolving door section behind the elderly lady and had a look in her eyes that said, “Don’t move!”  When she came out of the door she grabbed my arm and said, “Now, young man, go find that lady and apologize for pushing in front of her.  What you did was very wrong and very rude!”   My mouth fell open as I tried to look as helpless I could, but my mother wasn’t in the mood for excuses.  She led me through the crowd toward the woman I had offended and then released me about a meter behind her.  “Now, apologize!”, she fumed through clenched teeth in a voice quiet enough for only me to hear. 

The woman was standing in front of the elevator waiting for the door to open.  “Mam, I’m sorry I ran in front of you back there,” I remember saying in a voice broken with emotion and shame.  The woman looked at me realizing that I had been “encouraged” by my mother and she said, “Thank you for apologizing, young man.  I know that wasn’t an easy thing to do.”  Just then the elevator came, she nodded, and then disappeared behind the closing door.

On the way home my mother explained how important it was for us to admit when we made a mistake, to accept the blame, then immediately do something to counteract the mistake—offer an apology if appropriate, then learn something from the mistake so you don’t repeat it.   It would take me a few years before I fully understood the message: Making mistakes is common—we all make mistakes.  Standing up and taking responsibility for the mistake, though, is not so common, but it is a truly differentiating characteristic that signifies growth, character and leadership qualities.

Over the years I have applied this lesson when I was evaluating leaders for various positions.  I would always (and still do) ask them to describe a setback they have experienced.  Then, I pay special attention to how they describe the situation.  If they talk about other people, outside forces, the economy, poor planning at the level above them—everything and anything exceptthemselves as being responsible for the setback, it is a real red flag to me.  Further, if they don’t explain what they learned from the setback that brought about a change in behavior, then I’m not likely to continue the conversation for much longer.  They have already told me everything I need to know: their ego will not accept their involvement in a failure and therefore they will more than likely repeat the same mistakes again…and again.  On the other hand, when someone describes a setback using a liberal dose of the first person singular and tells me what they learned from the mistake, that, too, tells me everything I need to know: they can accept their role in setbacks, learn from them and move forward unlikely to repeat the mistakes of the past.

There is truly something powerful that happens when you take responsibility for your actions—you show yourself and others that you are worthy of being trusted and of leading others in a way that commands respect.

Good luck on your way up!


About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at www.pragueleadershipinstitute.com