I’ve been thinking about personal responsibility this week, and how I align what I take responsibility for with what I control. In my own work with a coach, we’ve identified that I can get into a “Hero Eric” mindset where I try to make everything go right – I feel responsible for holding everything together for the people and projects I care about. And it’s somewhat ironic, given that I recently wrote about breaking the lonely hero story of leadership where I observed this mindset in others.
The problematic part about that Hero mindset for me is twofold:
1) There’s so much that’s out of my control.
2) I don’t trust other people to take on more.
On the first point, when I take on the responsibility for an outcome, I am in some sense taking on the burden of the whole world. Due to the world becoming ever more complex and interconnected, events in one area can vastly impact the outcomes I can expect for myself. The times we are all living through is an extreme case where a coronavirus mutation somewhere near Wuhan has completely changed life as we know it for the foreseeable future. No matter what plans and objectives you had for yourself before this crisis, they have to be re-evaluated now.
And yet, in my Hero Eric mindset, I beat myself up for not achieving my goals and take it personally that I am failing to deliver on my internal commitments to myself and others. That’s clearly ridiculous when the whole world has been turned upside down, and yet it feels that if I had been “on top of things” or “competent”, I should have foreseen this and/or prepared for it in some way.
I don’t absolve myself of all responsibility, of course – there is always more I could have done to fulfill my commitments. But stressing about what I didn’t do, and beating myself up for what I “should” have done, is a waste of energy. This post is perhaps another way of stating the message in The Last Word on Power, where I let go of the way things “should” be, accept that “life turns out the way it does”, and instead focus on what I will do next.
That message of focusing on what is in my control, which is specifically my mindset and my next action, resonates with me right now as I navigate these times. For instance, after spending two weeks paralyzed by doubt as to how things were going to turn out, I realized that my coaching business was suffering from my inaction. Instead of waiting until I know what will happen, there are experiments I can run to offer more value to the clients I plan to serve based on what I know today. If those don’t work, I can try something else to take action instead of miring myself in analysis paralysis.
Returning to the second point from above, the other insidious aspect of the Hero mindset is not trusting others, and taking responsibility from them. As a coach, I watch out for this mindset in that when a client comes to me with a problem, it’s always tempting to solve the problem for them so I can be the Hero. And yet, this does not serve the client’s interests; as Jerry Colonna put it in a Coaches rising podcast, when we get sucked into problem solving mode, we are confirming the client’s reality that they can’t handle the problem themselves. Once we solve their problem once, we have taken the responsibility from them, and it’s now our problem because we didn’t trust them to find a way forward.
This Hero mindset is attractive because it serves our ego – everybody else is inferior to us because we are the ones with the answer! But it really limits what we will attempt – if we only look for situations where we can be the Hero, then we are confined to areas where we are already experts. By moving away from the need to be the Hero, we can explore new areas, and collaborate with others to create new possibilities with greater impact than we could have found on our own as the Hero.
The two problems I identified with the Hero mindset are related; in both cases, I am taking responsibility that is not mine to take, whether for the complexities of the whole world, or for the problems of others. By matching what I feel responsible for with my locus of control, I can approach changing, complex situations with more equanimity. And even though I am letting go of some areas of responsibility, I paradoxically feel more empowered to make a difference in that I appreciate that my actions have a ripple effect outwards because we are all connected in more ways than ever before (as Norman Fischer puts it, it’s an acknowledgment of “the awesome and indelible power of our actions”).
So if you notice yourself taking on a Hero mindset, how will you let go of that feeling that you have to fix everything? What actions will you take towards achieving your goals instead?
P.S. If you’re curious, you can check out older posts I have written on responsibility over the years. I read through them in preparing this post, and I find that certain posts continue to resonate with me, while others feel more distant now, especially the ones that focus more on individual responsibility without an acknowledgment of the web that connects us all.