by Stephen Scott

14 June 2021

In his landmark work, Nichomachean Ethics, the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that “courage is the mother of all virtues because without it, you cannot consistently perform the others.” I find this to be universally true, and the idea of “mother virtues” applicable to a range of contexts, including leadership.

I agree that courage is the mother of all virtues, and that only with courage can you live the mother virtue of leadership: responsibility.

Responsibility, like all virtues, requires courage. Taking responsibility is difficult, sometimes draining, but most of all, terribly scary. Why? It’s in the name. You have to take it.

The name, in my reading of the phrase, means two things:

Ultimately, responsibility cannot be given to a person. At most, the opportunity to take responsibility can be offered, but the behaviour and practice can only be enacted by the person themselves. An institution might offer you a higher-paying job with more responsibility, but of course it is still your task to actually take that new, more serious responsibility; it is on you, and you alone, to renew your commitment to showing up on time, to delivering the new, harder work, and to making yourself more available to more people who need you.

If you don’t take the responsibility offered to you, simply, you fail. In the most literal sense, this manifests in poor performance. In the above example, if you don’t renew that commitment to punctuality, to improved work ethic and more generous leadership, you won’t perform your job at the level expected from someone in your new position, and you’ll be stood down. Frankly, this is the best-case scenario for someone who fails to perform in a role with high responsibility. It’s unfortunately almost as common that one can hide. Especially in bigger institutions with more complex structures, it’s not impossible to bide time, to hide behind the achievements of others, or to appear successful when next to peers who are more overtly failing.

But this is a long, slow death, not only for the institution that is wasting its resources on a new, unproductive leader, but also for the leader. The leader who manages to slip by unnoticed, not quite keeping up but not quite falling behind (at least not noticeably), learns nothing. If anything, he or she learns that it’s not too difficult to simply “get by.” This pattern of thinking, and of behaving, is an incredibly tough one to break. It’s a hollow state-between-states, neither dying nor truly living, so to speak, and while it might feel safe and warm moment-to-moment, the dull, pervasive pain of unmet potential will eventually outweigh the pain of taking responsibility.

That is my understanding of the importance of taking responsibility, and I’m sure it will read the same as most people’s. However, over the last eighteen months or so, watching the impact of the coronavirus slowly unfurl and creep into every facet of our new lives, I’ve seen evidence time and time again that this understanding of responsibility is lop-sided.

In the Interlude of Ethics Trump Power, I write that a productive culture is a two-way street. I compare the effort-to-result ratio of a leader to the fuel-to-air ratio of a jet engine: in both cases, common sense usually tells us (usually unconsciously) that the more you put in, the more you get out. Especially in our society, obsessed as it is with “hustling” and “grinding” to get all you can out of life, it’s almost heresy to think about pumping the brakes. The idea that you can exert “too much effort” is not a popular one. The worldwide slow-down brought on by the pandemic lockdowns teased a societal acceptance of a slower, more measured approach to work, but the desperate return to normal (including “normal” work ethics) makes me wonder if that might have been little more than a group-think phase.

Nonetheless, there is a tipping point.

In a jet engine, too much fuel makes the engine burn inefficiently, and it will experience a loss of power. More fuel means more power, but only to a certain point. The same is true of the expenditure of a leader’s energy. Everyone you lead will have a certain capacity, whether it be for hard work, for humility, for resilience, for anything, really. And while that capacity, contrary to popular belief, can grow, it is not indestructible. Like a muscle, pushing things to the limit is the path to growth, but go too far too often, and things tear.

From my book Ethics Trump Power:

I have seen a variety of responses to CEOs attempts to manage situations, where there is evidence of a persons underperformance, resistance to feedback and unwillingness to improve their behaviour and practices. I have seen the people in question go on extended stress or sick leave and after a period of time take their issue with the CEO and the organisation to FairWork Australia. Often, I see the issue escalated to the Anti- Discrimination Board. In one particular situation, an employee demanded forty thousand dollars as a payout after a long dispute with the CEO over their performance. However, on principle, the CEO challenged the demand. Subsequently, the CEO invested eighty per-cent of their time on fighting this issue for over six months. They spent twenty thousand dollars in legal fees and sixty thousand dollars in an additional employees salary to backfill the vacancy created, whilst the person on leave remained on a full salary.

The CEOs quality of life degraded horribly from being treated appallingly by the union and the opposing lawyers. The end result was the payout of forty thousand dollars to the disgruntled employee along with a non- disclosure agreement where both parties couldnt speak of the issue to anyone. As a current board director and chair, I see this as an extreme productivity issue. Overall, the organisation invested over two hundred thousand dollars to resolve this issue when it could have been resolved for forty thousand dollars. During this time, the organisation was not led productively, and immeasurable damage was caused to its culture as a result of allowing this issue to play out for so long.

In behavioural economics, this is referred to as the “sunk-cost fallacy.” It is an unfortunate fact of human nature that we are hard-wired to continue a behaviour or endeavour as a result of previous investment, even if it’s relatively clear that it’s no longer the productive path. Once we have invested – whether it be time, money or effort – in an endeavour, we are often blind to its actual value.

This is commonly the basis of a culture of entitlement. If a leader hires or promotes an employee, they’re investing in that person. They’re investing money in that person’s salary, time in the person’s training, and, perhaps most crucially, the CEO’s own reputation by displaying faith in that person. Thanks to the sunk-cost fallacy, it’s incredibly hard then for a leader to recognise a lost cause or an unproductive path and re-direct accordingly. 

Unfortunately, the flow-on effects reach much further than even the financial and time costs of sticking it out with a particular underperforming employee. When a leader gives too much effort to a one-way relationship like above, it does not go unnoticed. Frequently, it becomes the norm, and it breeds a culture of entitlement.

Entitlement is the antithesis of responsibility.

A culture of responsibility is one of learned aptitude. When leaders and their employees take responsibility, they prove to others and to themselves that they are capable; that obstacles can be overcome, and that actions lead to results.

Conversely, a culture of entitlement is one of learned helplessness. Entitlement is the belief that you are owed something, and that when you do not receive what you are supposedly owed, it is a failing of your leaders. A culture of entitlement is a toxic one, because it teaches its members that complaining is the extent of their available responses to challenge and adversity.

So, unlike most of my writing, this is not a call to arms for leaders. Not strictly, at least. Instead, this is a call to arms for the led. A good leader will have the humility to recognise that we all follow, just as we all lead: the principal of a school or the CEO of a company defers in some capacity to the Chair of the Board, and the Chair defers to stockholders. The manager of a franchise leads a team while being led by the regional manager, and so on. The chain of command is not a straight line if you’re paying attention. At the end of the day, we all lead, and we all have leaders.

Therefore, it’s necessary for everyone to learn the value of meeting your leaders halfway.

Though I’ve seen it in many forms and over many years, the behaviour of many during the pandemic has been particularly illustrative of a dangerous trend away from taking responsibility. I’ve seen many people furious at their government for not providing them with funds that they themselves would be, or would have been, more than capable of mustering up had they taken more responsibility for themselves and their families. In military circles, there’s a phrase that refers to peacetime training, but applies to everyday civilian life just as well: complacency kills. 

I wouldn’t dream of accusing people of failing to see a global health crisis coming – I certainly didn’t, and the most serious, long-term and far-reaching impacts of COVID-19 have stemmed from its being so unexpected. But that’s the very point of redundancies – of saving money while you can, of training in peacetime – you can afford them, and they’re there in the hope that you’ll never need them. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

My point is not about saving money, though. It is, of course, much bigger than that. Sometimes, our government, our institutions, and our leaders get things wrong. This is inevitable, and it’s crucial as informed, active citizens that we stand up for our rights. The danger, though, is when this response, this reaction, becomes automatic. It leads to over-reliance, which is the opposite of responsibility. Equally, it diminishes the voices of those whose rights truly aren’t being respected.

I would never propose to know exactly and always when it is or isn’t right to expect more from our institutions and our leaders.

But I do propose that making responsibility the automatic first response is always the best option. If nothing else, you’ll learn something, and more often than not, you’ll be able to meet your leaders, and in turn those whom you lead, halfway.

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