Avoiding responsibility means giving up the power to grow


In my newest chapter about the characteristics of heroes and what we can learn from them, I want to take a closer look at responsibility and accountability and why those characteristics are so valuable for our lives.

Let’s start with Sully.

The pilot Chesley Sullenberger aka Sullyin the eponymous movie starring Tom Hanks performed one of the most astounding and improbable emergency landings in the history of civil aviation. After a flock of Canada geese destroyed one of the plane’s engines, his Airbus A320 with155 passengers on board went slowly down.

Pilot “Sully” Sullenberger didn’t have the luxury of time to peruse all manuals. He also did not follow what would have been a ‘normal’ procedure: returning to the nearest airport which was, in that case, La Guardia. He only had 208 seconds and he decided to do a spectacular emergency landing right on the Hudson River. A maneuver, which was never trained or even considered before. Sully succeeded and not a single passenger was harmed.

What did Sully do? He took 100% responsibility and accountability for his actions during and after the incident and did what he thought was the right thing to do against all ‘normal’ advice and procedures he was taught.

This is the thing all heroes have in common: they hold themselves accountable for their actions and do not shy away from their own responsibility.

If shit hits the fence, don´t blame, resent, complain or whine…would Indiana Jones? When in doubt, go out and deal with the mess yourself. If you don´t succeed, keep on trying until you do. Never blame outer circumstances or other people if things go wrong. Heroes wouldn´t.

Be the creator of circumstances

But what do responsibility and its sibling accountability actually mean!?

In short, they are the willingness to stand up and be counted; they are about taking initiative and delivering on a commitment.

To be more precise: having responsibility is the obligation to acknowledge the choices we have and act on them with taking charge for all consequences; accountability is about keeping promises and do what we say we would.

Imagine the opposite of responsibility for a moment: That would be passively waiting for our fate to be determined by luck or others. In that case, we would solely depend on external forces to dictate our future. Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it?!

The advantages of acting responsible and accountable are vast and important for our lives. By taking responsibility and accountability we empower ourselves to make a difference. We take our destiny in our own hands and grow confidence to make things better. If we take accountability, we are always the creator and not the victim of circumstances.

Also, we become better problem-solvers when we take accountability for the mistakes we make; through the sheer act of acknowledging our mistakes, we take the first step to learn and make it better the next time.

Holding ourselves accountable can have a positive impact on social affairs, too: owning our mistakes and actions enhances our relationships because people find us more trustworthy and can better relate to us.

Why we avoid responsibility

The big question is: if acting responsibly and taking accountability only bring advantages why do people actually avoid them so often?

Well, on a superficial level avoiding responsibility can make our lives more convenient: We can blame our hard upbringing or other disadvantages we might have experienced if things go wrong. We can point our fingers at others and blame them. Easy. Especially parents and our education are a convenient target for people who avoid taking accountability for their actions. We can be completely in denial about the mistakes we made, which conveniently can avoid short-term confrontations.

It is in human nature that we don’t like to be reminded of our wrongdoings and we definitely do not like to admit our flaws to others.

Another reason why people avoid responsibility is that of the psychological phenomenon called “bystander-effect”. It means that we are less likely to take responsibility when in a larger group of people as we rely on other members of the group to take the initiative.

But think about the bad consequences: By not owning mistakes, by not being accountable for our flaws there is a real danger that we will not learn from them and will do the very same mistakes over and over again.

Even worse, we will adopt a wrong self-conception and will not give ourselves room to improve and grow.

By removing ourselves from a potential role in the problem we also remove us from creating a potential solution. That, in turn, will steal us the satisfaction and glee to solve problems ourselves and overcome hurdles.

Simply put: If you always blame others or bad circumstances, you give up your own power to grow and change.

How to learn responsibility

The good news is that we can learn responsibility: Start with asking yourself if there is anything you try to avoid or hide in your life. I bet there is. Go out and confront it in the next step. Take full responsibility for it. Remember that responsibility is a choice.

Another way of learning responsibility is to change your mindset. Continuously make yourself aware that you are in total control of your own actions and thoughts. Next time feelings of blame or guilt come up in difficult situations, recognize that both are forms of evading responsibility. Step back and ask yourself how your own actions have affected that situation.

You will liberate your life if you stop running or hiding from something. Taking responsibility and owning mistakes will make your life truthful and authentic. It might make it harder in the short term but will pay off in the long term; and you will be more honest, especially to yourself. Really.

Heroes and responsibility

Looping back to heroes: they take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for their actions. Otherwise, they would not be heroes.

Take George Clooney’s Good Night and Good luck, which is based on the true story of gutsy broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow during the gloomy days of the McCarthy area. He takes responsibility and encourages his viewers to stand up against the persecution of innocent people. In the politically toxic environment of 1950s America, he puts his own life at risk, stays true to his character and holds himself accountable for his own doings. In the end, his brave and honest broadcasts helped to censure Senator Joseph McCarthy.

WALL-E, one of the most adorable Pixar characters, is another good example. This innocent robot is programmed to collect waste which was left behind on the deserted planet Earth. He fulfills his job with utmost responsibility and always does his best no matter what he is doing; even no one is watching. Though it is a lonely and mundane job, WALL-E manages to find happiness in the smallest of things.

Later in the story, he takes responsibility for his friend and love interest and helps her no matter what. He then even teaches the human race that they can come back to planet earth and take responsibility for the damage they caused. WALL-E is even a universal reminder that we as the human race are responsible for the well-being of planet earth we live on.

Remember the cop thriller “Serpico” with Al Pacino? Based on true events, the policeman Frank Serpico decides to take responsibility and blow the whistle on the corrupt police officers around him. Though he gets severely threatened by his fellow cops and friends, he stays true to himself and 100% accountable for his actions.

Be a creator, not a victim

Life is full of choices. Ultimately the story of our lives will be a result of the choices we made and the actions we took. People who act responsibly, believe that they can shape their life and attribute events and conditions, may they be good or bad, to their very own actions.

You can choose to be the creator of your own destiny; seeking solutions, taking action and trying something new when prompted with any stimulus from your environment.

Or you can choose to be the victim of your world, blaming, complaining and finding excuses for your choices when prompted with a stimulus from your environment.

The former helps you achieve your goals and leads to autonomy, while the latter seldom help you to achieve either.

Of course, there is absolutely no guarantee to achieving all of your life’s objectives but once you take responsibility for your actions you have a greater chance of creating the life you desire.

Listen to Bob Dylan’s words: „A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.”

Be responsible for everything you do. Don’t be a victim. Be a creator. Heroes are.

Nicolai Schumann is the founder of Universal Storyteller and teaches storytelling at universities and to corporates. www.universalstoryteller.co.uk