When you are in a leadership position, you will be a lightning rod for criticism. I remember being in a situation where I was managing someone I didn’t hire, someone I didn’t promote (from part-time to full-time) and then didn’t promote again (from an entry-level role to a supervisor role). In addition to having no control over the hiring and firing of personnel, I did not have the ability to name the benchmarks or measures by which the personnel I managed would be measured. I could not name what they were expected to do month by month, week by week, or day by day. But, at the same time, and despite all of this, I was expected to be responsible for their results. I was held responsible for their output, all their numbers, all their production, their reputations and relationships in the organization, the culture of our local organization, and so on. I was in a position of relative powerlessness, but massive responsibility.
To no one’s surprise, things did not always work. There were moments where the team was motivated, there was some inspiring thing I said or did, or something that happened out of my control that got things going in a good way. I can’t take credit for all that happened, good or bad, and that’s the whole point: How much of your situation is your fault? How much isn’t?
I see that leaders, and I think it applies to all people, are inundated with messages of personal, individual responsibility. Everything that happens in your world is your fault. What ends up happening is this. If you’re in a good place, and you are successful, that feels great. Yes, I am responsible. When you hit a downturn, it feels awful. Yes, I am responsible… and I’m in hell. Leadership then leads to a succeed-or-die internal life, where your relationship with yourself is based on innumerable things that are ultimately out of your control.
The corporate leadership way is a total crapshoot of books on books, all saying different things. Someone is always trying to find out the secret to leadership, and then monetize it, and everyone has failed up to this point. But the corporate leadership noise creates that “good company man” who is working late, working weekends, taking the promotion across country in a new town, chasing down responsibility for a shitty brand, a failing organization, cleaning up someone else’s decisions (or hundreds of decisions), and the “leader” ends up crushed by it.
I see that kind of character-shaming, “leaders take responsibility” talk directed at people to guilt them into cleaning up messes. I see that kind of language in terrible companies where the people up top are constantly starting fires for other people to clean up, and then expecting their reports to save the day because “leadership.” How many guilt trips have you gotten from people who call themselves leaders?
Here are some options to consider as you think about your own fault in your present situation:
1) Your organization might be completely fucked up beyond repair.
If this is the case, you are probably in a pool of blame. You are absorbing guilt, criticism, negativity, and fault into your blood and your soul just by being there. Do you want to take all that blame? Do you need to?
2) You might be in an incredibly complicated situation.
How often have you made a choice that you intentionally, consciously knew was wrong? How often have you seen others do that? It’s pretty rare. More often, you have hundreds, maybe thousands of people making as many decisions within a broken system, and everyone is doing their best with what limited information and resources they have. Who is to blame? Really, give a full minute to try and figure out who is to blame in your typical mess… Is it worth a second minute to try and figure out?
3) You might be at fault.
The bottom line is, you are responsible, it is probably just much, much smaller than what your mind is telling you, and what your organization is telling you. That situation where you had a few terrible options, and it went worse, would someone else have made the same decision? Was there a better option, looking back now with more information? Maybe? Maybe not? That bitter pill of responsibility, when things go bad, is tiny, like a grain of sand. If it’s the size of a basketball, you are taking on someone else’s faults as your own. You are free from that, leave it at the figurative, organizational table, and take the tiny speck of blame that actually belongs to you. Then, be free.