The ABC’s of Professionalism
Every now and again, the subject of rights takes center stage in the public arena. Human rights, personal rights, maternal rights, rights of the unborn, the right to bear arms, and the right to health care are just a few of the more common topics. This column deals with the forgotten part of the rights discussion -– responsibility.
“We’ve gotten to the point where everybody’s got a right and nobody’s got a responsibility.” — Newton N. Minow (1926- ), Attorney, former FCC Chair
Perhaps the most famous expression of personal responsibility is President Harry S. Truman’s motto, “The buck stops here!” The record does not say whether this was Truman’s private joke toward political rivals or simply his retort to the very human practice of “passing the buck.” It was undeniably part of his public persona. He even had a sign with these words on his White House desk.
Image Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum
This may be the most powerful and concise statement of personal responsibility of all time. Here’s another strong, Trumanesque statement:
“If you mess up, ‘fess up.” — Author Unknown
Today, people like to say, “It happened on my watch.” as if to imply, “Please note that I didn’t directly cause the problem, but I’m in charge so I’ll deal with the mess.” While perhaps true, it seems to contain just a hint of figuratively “passing the buck.”
Discussions about responsibility tend to gravitate toward unfavorable outcomes and the folks stuck with cleaning up the mess. This is reactive responsibility. There is another dimension. One is engaging in proactive responsibility when he acquires sufficient wisdom in advance regarding the probability of certain causes and effects, courageously commits to be personally accountable for all outcomes (good or bad), and moves forward optimistically and prepared with his action plan. In other words, responsibility includes preparation, commitment, and “pre-action,” not just reaction. Sounds a lot like the other aspects of professionalism, eh?
Preparation: “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” — G. M. Trevelyan (1876-1962), English historian
Courage: “Responsibility is the thing people dread most of all. Yet it is the one thing in the world that develops us, gives us manhood or womanhood fiber.” — Frank Crane (1861–1928), Minister, columnist
Action: “Actions have consequences…first rule of life. And the second rule is this – you are the only one responsible for your own actions.” — Holly Lisle (1960- ), American novelist, “Fire In The Mist”, 1992
There’s wisdom in the coaching cliche, “There is no ‘I’ in team.” However, it is also true that there is a lot of “I” in responsibility. In fact, responsibility exists only at the personal level. As people band together to form companies, institutions, governments, teams and other organizations, personal responsibility either gets foggy or it completely evaporates, producing unintended negative outcomes and outright corruption.
“Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages” — Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), English author, poet
“When government accepts responsibility for people, then people no longer take responsibility for themselves.” — George Pataki (1945- ), Former governor of New York
“The problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use – of how to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public.” — Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968), U.S. Senator, ‘I Remember, I Believe,’ The Pursuit of Justice, 1964
To prevent or eliminate this sort of chaos, each person needs to act like a professional by first remembering that responsibility always remains in the hands of individuals, then willingly claiming responsibility wherever and whenever it is appropriate.
“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” — George Burns (1896-1996), American comedian, actor, writer
“You can delegate authority, but not responsibility.” — Stephen W. Comiskey
“‘I must do something’ always solves more problems than ‘Something must be done.'” — Author Unknown
“You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say” — Martin Luther (1483-1546), German monk, theologian, church reformer, writer, composer
A professional makes promises and keeps them. A professional accepts a position of authority and performs to the best of his ability. A professional speaks inspiring words, then leads by example. Responsibility begins with words and is fulfilled with deeds.
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), Political and spiritual leader of India
“Life is a promise; fulfill it.” — Mother Teresa (1910-1997), Albanian Roman Catholic nun, missionary, humanitarian
Deeds produce outcomes. Positive outcomes are often called results — negative outcomes are euphemistically known as consequences. When outcomes are good, the responsible professional is humble, shares the credit and moves forward to build on those results. When outcomes are less favorable, he accepts the blame, makes amends, seeks forgiveness and continues moving forward, but a little bit wiser.
“Failure is nature’s plan to prepare you for great responsibilities.” — Napoleon Hill (1883-1970), American author
“Nobody ever did, or ever will, escape the consequences of his choices.” — Alfred A. Montapert, American Author
“It is our responsibilities, not ourselves, that we should take seriously.” — Peter Ustinov (1921-2004)
Personal responsibility is each person’s first prerequisite, especially before attempting to instruct others on this aspect of professionalism. No irresponsible person can be effective or credible when it comes to promoting responsibility in others.
“If you think taking care of yourself is selfish, change your mind. If you don’t, you’re simply ducking your responsibilities.” — Ann Richards (1933-2006), former Texas Governor
“Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self respect springs.” — Joan Didion (1934- ), “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”
“You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons, or the wind, but you can change yourself. That is something you have charge of.” — Jim Rohn (1930- ), American author, entrepreneur, motivational speaker
Your personal responsibility path leads to opportunities to leave a legacy of responsibility for your children and others within your circle of influence. This includes becoming the best person you can become.
“Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors” — Jonas Salk (1914–1995), American biologist, physician
“Work while you have the light. You are responsible for the talent that has been entrusted to you.” — Henri-Frédéric Amiel (1821-1881), Swiss philosopher, poet
“Life is a gift, and it offers us the privilege, opportunity, and responsibility to give something back by becoming more.” — Anthony Robbins (1960- ), Motivational speaker
“Every person is responsible for all the good within the scope of his abilities, and for no more” — Gail Hamilton (1833-1896), American writer
Opportunities for responsibility are instrumental in building character. They should be treated as life’s quizzes, tests, and exams — tools to learn, reinforce, stretch, and provide a progress measurement.
“A new position of responsibility will usually show a man to be a far stronger creature than was supposed.” — William James (1842–1910), American psychologist, philosopher
“Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.” — Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), American educator, author, orator
“If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.” — Abigail Van Buren (1918- ), Advice columnist
Free will allows each person to accept as much or as little responsibility as he sees fit. But, everyone must be willing to accept some measure of it. Whereas some will consistently leave responsibility on the table, the professional will rise to the challenge, picking up the slack for the greater good. The hidden gem for the professional is what he becomes in the process.
“Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), German author
“The price of greatness is responsibility.” — Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), British Prime Minister
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