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Key words: Responsibility, Judgment, Honesty, Integrity, Behavior, Dependable

You have probably seen the television commercials for Liberty Mutual Insurance Company.  In those advertisements a woman at a street intersection pulls back on the arm of a man stepping off the curb to prevent him from being struck by an oncoming car.  In others you see a man picking up a child’s toy that has fallen from a carriage and returning it or a person pushing someone out of the way of falling boxes.

These and similar short events depicted in the commercials are excellent examples of people taking responsibility and doing the right thing.  Some are relatively small and not necessarily critical but others clearly are significant relative to reducing serious damage or saving someone from being injured.

Notice “responsibility” and “doing the right thing” are linked.  One of the major definitions of leadership is doing the right thing and the importance of this concept cannot be overstated.  It is difficult to have one without the other.  Let’s look at another example of taking responsibility.

This is the story of Joshua and Chris, two 13 year old boys who were playing on a sidewalk when an elderly man walked by.  He said hello to the two boys while simultaneously taking a handkerchief from his pocket.  As he did a large amount of money fell from his pocket onto the sidewalk but the man did not realize what had happened.  The elderly gentleman continued on his way.  The two boys immediately went over to the money which was held together with a money clip.  They quickly counted the $20.00 dollar bills and realized it was nearly five hundred dollars.

Chris said to Josh, “Man, that’s enough to buy a new PlayStation.”  Let’s get out of here before that old guy realizes what happened.  The two boys started running down the street before Josh stopped.  “Wait a minute.” he said.  “We can’t take that old guy’s money; it’s wrong.”  Chris   said, “What, are you crazy?  He’ll never know what happened.  It’s free money to us.”  Josh   said; “Yes, but we’ll know.”  “And, I know where he lives in that old apartment building and he probably doesn’t have a lot of money.  We need to return this to him right now.”

And so the two boys did.  They ran after the man and caught up with him at the end of the block.  “Mister, here is some money you dropped back there on the sidewalk.  It’s all there, we didn’t take any.”  The elderly gentleman stopped and looked down at the two boys.  “Well, let me see” as he looked at the money they were holding while simultaneously searching through his pocket.  “You’re right.  I seem to have dropped it and you two fine, young boys have returned it.  Well, bless you both!”

As the boys handed the money clip to the man he continued saying; “Do you realize this money is for my apartment rent.  I am taking it to the landlord.  If I didn’t have this he might have forced me to leave my home so I am indeed indebted to you both.”  “Wow, mister. We didn’t know but we’re glad we were there to find it and bring it back,” said Josh.

And so the two boys and the elderly gentleman went their separate ways.  As they walked back down the sidewalk Josh said; “I’m glad we did that, it feels real good to have helped that old guy.  I would hate to have found out he would have had to leave home for not paying his rent.”

This simple yet profound story is extremely important and relevant to the issue of leadership.

In this story we are specifically speaking about responsibility but there are other characteristics that also come into play such as honesty and integrity.  Importantly, consider the fact that both boys initially were all set to take off with the money.  Then, as they started to go, one of them stopped.  His inner self [honesty] realized this was wrong and through his personal effort he also prevented the other boy from taking the money.  He took responsibility and did the right thing.  That act is a cardinal example of personal leadership.

We can imagine the boy who took responsibility and stopped the event from ever happening most likely went on to live a life that included a high level conscientiousness and integrity.  But what about the other boy?  How important an act was this on his future?  Did his friend make a significant impression on him at the early age of thirteen?

Responsibility is one of the most fundamental, core elements of leadership.  Without it one cannot be a leader.  In fact, it is so basic to the principles of leadership, without a strong, personal sense of responsibility it would be like a body without skin.  Now that doesn’t mean you have to pick up every piece of paper you see blowing on the ground but it does indicate the need to understand those circumstances where responsibility must come into play.  Some situations will clearly be more important than others but you will instinctively know which ones require you to act.

One area of concern you must recognize is your level of social and interpersonal skills.  Some people are naturally shy and often hesitate to get involved in certain situations where they might feel embarrassed.  They see something and know what to do but vacillate due to a sense of personal discomfort.  Many do not feel at ease putting themselves on display.  This is a perfectly normal process and something to work on as you grow and mature.  The fact is that as you learn and grow your intellectual skills will be further enhanced.  This results in a more confident self.  As your confidence grows so will your ease at doing some things that put you in the spotlight.  Remember, by definition a leader is out front!

Often people are unsure whether or not to do something.  Frequently, they have a difficult time making a decision.  That scenario is fairly easy to overcome.  I once asked a surgeon how he made the decision to do a tracheotomy.  His answer was quite enlightening; you do it when the thought occurs to you.  Thus, if the thought enters your mind that maybe you should take action, then do it!  Does that bring to mind another set of famous commercials? How about those wonderful ads from Nike where they end with the comment, “Just do it.”

Consider again the television commercials for Liberty Insurance.  What if the woman who grabbed the man starting to step into the path of an oncoming car did not do so?  There is a very good chance that person would have been killed.  Taking action you know in your mind is important makes you a leader.  So, when you see someone who is about to make a mistake and potentially put themselves in harm’s way, act immediately.  Your action will possibly keep someone from serious injury and very possibly save a life.

Another way of looking at responsibility is to examine the impact on oneself.  You cannot ignore the commitment you have to you – body and mind!  At first blush this may sound simplistic but it is critical you understand and examine this very important notion.

Taking care of yourself is absolutely necessary for your future whether or not it is taking care of and/or building your body – exercise, proper eating, health checkups, and so forth or growing your mind through education and other intellectual stimulation.  This is personal responsibility with respect to you as an individual.  It must be a routine, everyday part of your life and followed conscientiously.

So, you ask yourself, what does this have to do with me being seen as a leader among my friends and others – especially at school.  That answer is quite simple actually.  When others see you taking responsibility, in whatever situation you are faced with, they will know you are someone who does the right thing.  Over time this recognition will be viewed as an element of your leadership skills and you will be seen as someone who can be trusted [critical!] to do what is right under all circumstances.  That is a core characteristic of leadership.

Of course, the real key to this situation is whether or not you perform acts of leadership even when you are not in the presence of others.  Leadership is an ongoing, 24/7 process.  You don’t execute leadership only when someone else sees what you are doing.  Thus, it is most likely many of your acts will not necessarily be witnessed by others.  However, it is critical you don’t factor that into your thinking.  A real leader will always seek to do “the right thing” whether or not he or she is in the presence of others.  Thus, it is very possible some actions may not be witnessed but to a real leader that is not important.  Taking credit for you actions is not a priority for a true leader.

You will recall in the situation with Chris and Josh who picked up the rent money of the elderly gentleman that Chris stepped up and told his friend it was wrong to keep the money. This is an excellent example of being a peer leader and should serve as an illustration of what you can do without being in a formal position of leadership.

Another way to look at responsibility or any other aspect of leadership for that matter is to consider the impact of your actions on your current friends.  Regardless of who we are we all have friends or people we hang with at various times throughout the day or week.  Just take a moment and think about common, everyday events that occur and how your friends think about you as a person.  Let’s look at a few familiar, straightforward examples:

  • A teacher asks students in the class if they would like to volunteer to help on Saturday at a special project to build a flower garden on the school grounds.  She passes out a sheet of paper so students can write their name and you put yours on the paper.  On Saturday morning you decide to go and play with a friend who goes to a different school and don’t show up for the work project.  What does your teacher – and many of your classmates – think of you regarding your sense of responsibility?  Oh, I know, you can always tell a “white lie” and hopefully no one will know the difference.  But, in reality, you will know even if others don’t.  And that does not make it right.  In the long run you are only kidding yourself because continuing that kind of behavior may not cause others to dislike you – you will dislike yourself!
  • Your friend Mike comes up to you in the school hallway just before the last class and asks if you would give him a ride home after school because he has learned the battery on his car is dead.  A short time later, during your last class of the day your friend Kevin asks if you want to shoot some hoops at the park after school.  You text Mike and tell him you can’t give him the ride but don’t provide a reasonable explanation.  The following day Mike learns you went to the park to play basketball.  What do you think his mindset is knowing you didn’t keep your commitment so you could shoot hoops even though taking him home would have only held you up by about 20 minutes?  While you did exhibit some responsibility by sending Mike a text you didn’t have your priorities straight with respect to balancing your commitment with the desire to play basketball a few minutes sooner.
  • You have just finished your tour of the campus at a college you are anxious to attend.  The faculty member who has spent time with you and your parents now completes the day’s events by asking you to forward him a short letter expressing in your own words why you think you would make a good addition to the school.  While you have already completed the formal application process this is an additional means he uses to finalize his own recommendations to the admissions office.  Once back home you procrastinate and don’t write the letter in a timely manner.  A few weeks later you receive a letter in the mail advising you that your request for early acceptance has been denied and you will be wait listed for admission the following fall.  Do you procrastinate?  Did your lack of responsibility cost you admission to the college of your choice?
  • Your friend Cecily has asked you to come to her house for the afternoon to play.  You say yes and tell her you will be there right after lunch – about one o’clock.  After lunch you decide you will go to the store which is within walking distance from your home to buy some candy.  When you return home you see it is now 2:00 o’clock and learn from your mother that Cecily has called wondering where you are.  You know your mother had told her you went to the store. When you call her and she asks why you had not come over you don’t have a good reason.  How do you think she feels?  How would you feel if Cecily had not come to your house under the same circumstances?

There are numerous examples of everyday situations where responsibility comes into play.  Some are so simple we don’t even realize they are cases where your personal sense of commitment is evident.  However, what is critical is the reality that as a teenager you don’t always think consciously of the ramifications or repercussions of your relationships with others.  Sure, you probably know about “fitting in” and “wearing the right clothes” – a subject for later discussion. But what you may not realize is that others are watching your behaviors.  Behaviors, behaviors, behaviors!  Never underestimate the importance of that word!

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you say.  Whether or not you are the captain of the football team, top student academically, someone who thinks of themselves as an “average” person – or whoever.  Others look at what you do, not what you say!  This may not be a conscious process but people will ultimately think of you by what you do.  Therefore, what may seem simple – not keeping a commitment and demonstrating your sense of responsibility – ultimately tells people you are not someone to be trusted or someone on whom they can depend.

One final word on this segment of responsibility.  There is a saying, or acronym, used in the business world called DWYSYWD.  Often this is referred to as “Dwis – E – Wid.”  It stands for “DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU WILL DO.”  Nothing under the heading of responsibility speaks more to the point than that statement.  Anything less will ultimately result in you having few, if any, friends or even acquaintances.  Simply stated, if you don’t do what you say you will do you will soon find yourself without true friends and few acquaintances.