[This post has been one of my more popular articles. Enjoy!]

Atlas Does Not Shrug

While discussing leadership with one of my coaching clients, he commented that part of his leadership development came through owning his own business a number of years ago. Having to ensure that business came through the door, that standards were high and the workers were on the job – all while going towards feeding his family – meant that he felt total responsibility for the work requirements. That basic, elemental part of his leadership – the sense of personal responsibility – is something he has carried over to a highly successful career in a large corporation. And it is a vital quality that activates and sustains leadership.

But developing an appropriate sense of responsibility in yourself and in others can be difficult. How do you do it?

How Responsibility Comes About

In my theory of Gifted Leadership™, based on my research in human development, I determined that there is a point at which leadership in a particular area or situation is developed by an individual. I call this The Activating Incident™.

The Activating Incident™ is that event that precipitates someone saying, “I can do something about this. I have the chance to do something about this. I will stop and do something about this.” It’s the combination of three factors:

  1. What Drives ResponsibilityRequisite Gifts, Talents & Skills
  2. Need & Opportunity
  3. Desire




These 3 factors are needed to activate that sense of responsibility, but they also need to be aligned with someone’s

  • Values, and
  • Self-Efficacy (their belief in their ability to achieve something)

Here’s an example I use when working with leaders: someone is cycling on a road in a town and they pass by someone on a footpath who has been hurt.

The cyclist, being close to the person hurt, has opportunity to dismount and feels moved to assist (because their values motivate them). Knowing that they can either call for help, or having some knowledge of first aid, they stop and assist the person.

Someone with adequate gifts, talents, skills and knowledge, however, observes that the person was hurt due to another cyclist hitting that person on a shared footpath. Being both a cyclist and wanting to help pedestrians, the person realises that the footpaths should be divided into cycling and pedestrian lanes and so starts a campaign through their local community and government. They are able to use their organisational skills or their communication skills to organise representations and convince others of the need. Perhaps they are good fundraisers or know someone else who is and pretty soon they have created a movement that results in change, get medals of civic service and appear in the press as “community leaders” who have “made a difference.”

So the person has gone from concerned individual to leader, because they have taken on personal responsibility.

You’ve seen this at work, in your community, in your church or on the world stage: the leaders are the ones who, for whatever reason, do something about an issue and bring people along to create a result. All because “they felt they had to do it.”

And leaders need that sense of persistence and motivation to tough it out at times. Achieving something worthwhile is rarely easy.

Leaders Need to Develop Responsibility – In Themselves AND Others

Many leaders feel a personal sense of responsibility. An activating incident can become a driving force in their career and leadership throughout their lifespan. But leaders can’t afford to be the only ones with responsibility. They need to develop it in others as well.

There are limits to a balanced sense of personal responsibility. Going too far in either direction creates all manner of problems, delusions and denials. So we need to guard ourselves, but we also need to actively develop it in our people. (If you want to hear about the limits, let me know and I’ll write about them on other occasions.)

Leaders can't be the only ones who feel responsible. They need to develop that sense in others. Click To Tweet

Here are 4 ways you can develop responsibility in others:

  1. Face them with the consequences of their actions. This does more than ‘rub their nose in it.’ Facing their consequences can be both positive and negative. It attaches their actions with results achieved in the world around them and reinforces the notion that their actions cause something to happen. It creates positive self-efficacy. In both positive and negative situations, it demonstrates that they can do something.
  2. Develop a sense of empathy. Understanding something from different viewpoints helps us to consider different ways of acting in the world. It provokes observation and sensitivity to what’s going on around us. This leads to the observation that someone has to do something if a situation is to be improved.
  3. Cultivate their understanding of themselves. Our gifts and talents. Our sense of place. Our resources. They’re all intrinsic to our ability to navigate our way in the world. If our people don’t understand themselves – if they don’t see their own potential – how can they see that they can do something. That client I mentioned before? A boss had told him as a very young man that with the right effort and development he had great leadership potential. 20 years later, my client still clearly remembers that and how it helped put him on a leadership path.
  4. Create an activating incident. Does this sound manipulative? No, it isn’t. By putting people in situations where they are required to carry the burden like Atlas above, you help them test their mettle and learn to carry the load. It’s all about growing.

By the way, all of this works with your kids as well. Try it!

If you want leaders you can rely on, then you need to develop their sense of responsibility – and that of the people around them. Then you’ll have a team of leaders willing to do whatever lies within them to get the job done.

For you, my reader: You’ve come here because you wanted to know about developing a sense of responsibility. What else would you like to know? What was your reason for reading my article? Leave a comment or question in the comments section below and I’ll respond promptly!
If you want to improve your performance, contact me here. We create great leadership and performance for individuals and organisations through our consulting, coaching, speaking and development services.
© 2014-2016 Peter J. McLean. Follow my blog at petermclean.co
How to Develop a Sense of Responsibility
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