Success Secrets of Leaders Today

Originally published in Bottom Line Personal 9/1/00. Reprinted by permission.


Accountability is one of today’s most popular business buzzwords. The term is bandied about with impunity by countless managers and CEOs, as if paying lip service to the idea will somehow effect a culture of accountability.

Yet in my work as a management consultant, I am frequently struck by how quickly people at all levels abdicate responsibility and blame others for their problems.

Self-responsibility is crucial for success in the workplace… as well as every other area of life. The meaning of self-responsibility can be summed up in the statement “I am the cause of the effects I desire.”

In practice, this means that instead of waiting for someone else to solve a problem, you must ask yourself, “What needs to be done to get the results I want?” and then do it yourself.

To become more self-responsible at work, you must assess your current attitudes and beliefs about self-responsibility.

This is often difficult to do directly, as we tend to avoid facing the areas in which we shirk responsibility.

An excellent way to approach this challenge is by using a technique I call “sentence completion.” In both clinical and business settings, I’ve seen this deceptively simple exercise lead to dramatic breakthroughs.

How to do it: Every day for a week, open a notebook and write six to 10 endings to the following incomplete sentence: If I operated 5% more self-responsibly at work…

Write without stopping to think. Don’t worry about whether your endings are accurate, important or reasonable. The idea is to turn off the little voice inside of you that censors your thoughts.

Here are some of the most common endings to these sentences that showed up when I gave this exercise to one group of executives:

  • I would look for ways to do more than I was asked to do.
  • I would stay focused on the most important issues.
  • I would learn more about what is going on around me.
  • I would not allow myself to become isolated from my colleagues.
  • I would be more honest and upfront with my boss.
  • I would get more accomplished.


Another good setup sentence to use for this exercise is: If I took 5% more responsibility for how I invested my time…

At the end of the week, review and reflect on the endings you have written – and any new behaviors they suggest. The discipline of this simple process is often enough to bring about insight – and behavior change – in a short time.

Banish from your vocabulary the expression “It’s not my job”: If somebody who work for or with you makes a mistake or neglects to complete an assignment, self-responsibility dictates that it is up to you to help fix the situation – whether or not it’s part of your job description.

When someone else’s actions or oversights affect us negatively, it’s only human to blame that person for letting us down. Blame may indeed be justified – but it’s rarely productive. The self-responsible alternative is to ask yourself, “What can I do to correct the situation?” Then ask yourself, “What else can I do?”

Example: Your department needs parts delivered by Thursday morning in order to meet a customer’s product deadline for the following week. The parts don’t arrive as scheduled. You could complain about the inefficiency of your purchasing department – which will erode interdepartmental relationships, hurt your credibility with the customer and not get the parts there any quicker. Or you can get on the phone with the supplier, track down the wayward delivery and figure out what else you can do to make sure your product gets out on time.

Refuse to indulge in confusion: Everybody gets confused sometimes – but staying confused is just another way of avoiding responsibility.

A self-responsible person takes steps to get unconfused. This might include getting additional facts, comparing notes with others familiar with the situation, and confronting – instead of ignoring – the data that challenge our assumptions.

Whenever you feel confused, ask yourself, “What am I pretending not to know?”


Be committed to continuous learning: It’s always been important to stay abreast of developments in your industry, but in today’s rapidly changing environment, this requirement is more urgent than ever before.

Part of self-responsibility is recognizing that you are the author of your career. Identify and address your weaknesses, develop your strengths, be alert for opportunities to make a contribution. Then, communicate those strengths and contributions. Don’t wait for your boss, industry headhunters or anyone else to recognize your accomplishments. Take it upon yourself to make sure others are aware of your worth.

Offer value in exchange for cooperation: Be a trader, not a parasite. When your goals require other people’s involvement, you’ll get more enthusiastic participation if you recognize that nobody exists just to serve you. The best way to motivate others is to offer them reasons that are in line with their values.

Give the employees whom you supervise the resources to be self-responsible: Establish clear performance standards for your subordinates. Then, once you’ve let your team know what needs to be done, allow them to do it.

Micromanaging kills initiative. Your subordinates should always feel free to ask for your help when they need it – but it is just as important for you to encourage them to do their own problem solving.

Communicate clearly: Be consistent about giving corrective feedback – and always do so in a constructive, non-blaming way. In addition, invite feedback from employees on your own performance as a manager – from your subordinates as well as from your boss. Their input can be invaluable and enable you to analyze and improve your effectiveness.