Things that get taken:
- parking spaces
- my seat
- too much time
- the TV remote
- lunch money
- spot in line
- private property for public use
There’s a certain air of negativity when things get taken.
Likewise, when responsibility gets “taken,” responsibility is being done wrong. Leaders who publicly stand up and solemnly intone the words “I take responsibility” often as not are really saying something less impressive:
This wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything wrong. However, part of the job of being in my position is allowing myself to be blamed for the failings of others. So, here I am – blame me. Once I have endured this ritual of my position, I expect to get back to what I was doing before I had to stop and take this responsibility. Should questions about this matter arise in the future, I expect that my reminding you that I have already fulfilled this obligation of status will suffice as an answer to those questions.
Truly accountable leaders don’t talk like this. They don’t “take” responsibility — they are responsible. Sure, the difference between saying “I take responsibility” and “I am responsible” may feel like the semantic nit-picking of a lawyer, but words matter. To paraphrase Aristotle: how we talk about things shapes how we think about them … a truth illustrated so powerfully in George Orwell’s classic, 1984.
Rather than psychologically hiding in the ego-protecting safe harbor of seeing responsibility as something to be taken, Leaders of integrity recognize that responsibility is something they already own. There is something profoundly different about these two seemingly synonymous turns of phrase. One cannot take what one already is. Taking responsibility when you are not actually responsible can be very much an act of sacrificial honor. On the other hand, professing to take responsibility when you are actually responsible is a much less noble deflection of the sharp, pointy end of being responsible.
Try it for yourself and see: the next time an opportunity presents itself, substitute the language of ownership and being responsible for the words of taking or accepting the responsibility that exists outside of you. See what a difference it makes for both the listener and (most importantly) yourself.