Reigniting Responsibility

Winston Churchill once said, "The price of greatness is responsibility." Many people gravitate toward leadership or supervisory positions for the "greatness" they think it will offer. Few embrace the true responsibility that comes with that greatness.


Winston Churchill once said, "The price of greatness is responsibility." Many people gravitate toward leadership or supervisory positions for the "greatness" they think it will offer. Few embrace the true responsibility that comes with that greatness. Personal responsibility is becoming more...


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Winston Churchill once said, "The price of greatness is responsibility." Many people gravitate toward leadership or supervisory positions for the "greatness" they think it will offer. Few embrace the true responsibility that comes with that greatness.

Personal responsibility is becoming more and more scarce in our society. People want to blame or sue everyone else for everything that goes wrong in society. Few people are willing to step up and take responsibility for the mistakes they make or the rules they break. Exceptional leaders will rise to the personal responsibility challenge, even if no one else is willing to join them.

I tend to tick a few people off when I speak or write about the topic of personal responsibility. I don't care. It's important enough to me and the future of the fire service that I am willing to take the flack for it. I plan to pick on management and labor in this article, so rest assured that I don't take sides when it comes to who I think needs to step up in this area. The bottom line is this: everyone needs to step up!

I'll start with management. Taking responsibility starts with admitting your mistakes. Leaders who can't admit when they are wrong create a lack of trust with followers as well as a lack of respect. Exceptional leaders learn how to say, "I was wrong," "I am sorry," and "What can I do to make it right?" Taking responsibility or admitting you are wrong is not sending out a mass e-mail to everyone saying, "We could have handled that situation better, but let's all just move on." When you minimize your mistakes, people want to maximize them. When you maximize your mistakes, people want to minimize them. The more you downplay your errors, the more people want to bring it up until you own it. The more you acknowledge your errors and profusely apologize for them, the more grace people want to give you.

The failure to admit you are wrong conveys an arrogance that followers find repulsive. I know I am being rather blunt here, but I think it's imperative. When you screw up, admit it, take responsibility and take ownership. As management, if you expect your firefighters to own their mistakes and take the discipline that comes with it, you need to model that behavior.

I have had command staff members and fire chiefs tell me that my advice in this area goes against the advice of their city attorney. They tell me they are often advised to never admit guilt because if a lawsuit follows, that admission could incriminate them. The right thing to do is the right thing to do no matter what the circumstances may be. If you made a mistake, the right thing to do is to admit it and try to make restitution. People tend to want to file lawsuits as a result of people not taking responsibility. Again, if you expect your firefighters to admit guilt and accept the discipline that comes with that guilt, you had better model that. If your admission of guilt comes with a price tag, then that price needs to be paid.

In October 1982, the maker of Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson, faced the worst possible crisis-management scenario an organization could ever face. Some psycho decided to pull bottles of Tylenol capsules off the shelves and inject them with cyanide and then return them to the shelves where unsuspecting members of the public would buy them and consume them. Seven people in Chicago, IL, died as a result, including a child. The connection to Tylenol was made very quickly and the company stepped up immediately to take responsibility and protect the public. Johnson & Johnson was in no way at fault, yet the company took full responsibility.

An immediate recall of all Tylenol capsules was made, which constituted about 31 million bottles and $100 million in lost revenue. The company then launched a triple-safety-seal, tamper-resistant package that included a plastic seal over the neck of the bottle, a foil seal over the mouth of the bottle and a glued box. Johnson & Johnson reached out to the families of the victims, providing counseling services and financial assistance, even though the deaths resulted through no fault of the company.

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