Friday, June 13, 2008

No One Told Us We Were Responsible

(News-Herald, June 12) In an interview in the winter 2005 issue of Invention & Technology, I found this gem of a quote from Robert Gallo, a man who started out in cancer research, but who made AIDS his life’s work. “No one told us we were responsible for finding the cause of AIDS and doing something about it.”

No one told us we were responsible.

“Responsible” is a powerful word. I’m not talking about the debased interpretation that equates responsibility with blame. “Responsible” means I take ownership of the problem. It’s mine. I’m going to deal with it, see it through, not assume that it’s up to someone else. I focus on getting the job done, not just going through the motions and walking away before I know how things turned out.

I know people who appear irresponsible. But maybe people who seem irresponsible are just waiting to be told what they’re responsible for.

Some wait to be told exactly what their responsibilities are. Some are afraid to take on stuff beyond their assigned area of responsibility; some just don’t want to.

The folks who stand out in the world take responsibility. They don’t wait to be told, and they don’t carefully read the letter of what they’re told.

How people define their responsibilities pretty much defines who they are. This isn’t always on some large scale. There’s a big difference between a waitress who believes her responsibility is to do only as much the boss demands, and one who believes her responsibility is to make sure you’re well taken care of while you’re in the restaurant.

No one told us we were responsible.

One plague of the modern world is that we’ve made it too easy to dodge responsibility. That’s not my job. We have people for that; let them take care of it.

But where do the responsible people come from? They see what needs to be done, and they recognize that they could do it, and so they step up. We see it every day. Fifty people see a man fall through the ice; two or three people jump in to save him. Fifty people walk past someone who needs a helping hand; two or three stop to lend it.

No one told us we were responsible.

We have entire workplace hierarchies developed with a main function of telling people what they’re responsible for so that they’ll get up and do it. Some people rarely step up—there’s a special draining misery in managing someone who must be told, every single day, exactly what he’s responsible for. Of course, there’s an equally frustrating misery that goes with trying to step up to a responsibility and having it taken away from you by a numbskulled boss.

But most of us look, in and out of work, for that calling, that perfect marriage of who we are, what we can do, and what needs to be done.

No one told us we were responsible.

The best leaders don’t wait to be told. They know their own strength and understand what the situation calls for. They don’t mistake responsibility for blame, and they don’t mistake it for credit either (responsibility is not about making sure you get a big shiny medal). Nor is responsibility about having an excuse to make sure you get things your own way.

No one can tell you any of these things. Rarely can anyone see as clearly as you can see yourself what needs to be done, how you can rise to that occasion.

It’s easy to take on just part of a job, to kick over the sandcastle, file a lawsuit, shoot down someone who’s getting things done, and just generally make a mess while saying, “Hey, it’s not my job to fix that. Nobody can tell me I’m responsible.” Or “No one said I had to fix that!”

Well, it’s rare that anyone ever tells you you’re responsible. When your child is born, no voice booms “You are responsible for this tiny person.” Even at work, it’s more common to get a list of actions to perform than a statement of what area you’re responsible for.

And so many people wait to be told, wait their entire lives. Some are secretly relieved that no one appears to point and say, “That’s your responsibility” and some are uncomfortably idle, wishing to be assigned a sense of purpose and direction.

Yet most great people agree: No one told us we were responsible.

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