How do we view people in positions of authority? Do we feel helpless in comparison to their strength and power? Do we resent them even while we are asking for their help? Or do we feel that when the dust settles, and results are tallied, the final responsibility for our work rests on our own shoulders?
Our attitude towards authority and responsibility runs like a powerful current throughout our life. It affects the paths we choose to take, how far we can go, and how much satisfaction we get along the way.
Command and control
Until recently, our culture expected people in authority to give orders, and the rest of us to obey them. This model, called command-and-control, was the way we tended to visualize our relationship with God, dad, our physician and our boss. Because of this cultural tradition, most of us habitually look for an authoritative figure, or else we try to be an authoritative figure ourselves.
Under command-and-control style management, when the people at the top are well-intentioned and insightful, the whole organization knows its common goal and how to achieve it. However, there are many drawbacks to such systems. If the people in command are less than brilliant or working their own agendas there is no way for the organization to adjust from below. By waiting for direction from above, we don’t tap into our own creative insights. We feel that our choices have little significance, and we think of ourselves with less respect. By allowing the person in authority to make decisions for us, we always have someone else to blame if anything goes wrong, and instead of fixing problems may feel our only choice is to backstab and complain.
Styles of leadership are changing with the times
In an older manufacturing economy, command and control gave satisfactory results. Factory workers could get by with little passion or innovation. However, the system was demoralizing for workers, and anyway, such simple situations are rapidly fading from western culture. In the new economy of information and service, each of us needs immediate control over our own decisions. Along with this increased responsibility, we recognize more clearly than ever the results of our effort.
Our actions have a far-reaching effect on others
In any position, we have many choices in the way we look at our responsibility. To take the easy way out, we could define our responsibility in the narrowest possible scope. “I did what I needed to do. That’s enough, isn’t it?” But once we take off our blinders, we recognize that we influence the people around us, not only through the results of our work, but through the attitude we have when we do it.
When we are pessimistic, bitter and preoccupied we pull others off target, focusing on complaints instead of forward motion. Our conversations and actions amplify depressing, antagonistic ideas and feelings, attracting like-minded peers and pushing away those who want to focus on collective accomplishment and service. We fulfill our own negative expectations by contributing to an environment of unhappy, disinterested people.
On the other hand, when we are cheerful, optimistic and energetic, the people we work and play with feel our energy and are lifted by it. Our willingness to help brings out the best in the people around us. They can connect with our joy, and feel more satisfaction in their work. Our respect for people who look and think differently than us promotes harmony and mutual respect. When we work hard, and maintain a positive attitude while we push through obstacles, we give others a role model of tenacity. We exponentially multiply the power of our own optimistic expectations by contributing to an environment of energized enthusiastic people.
Gradually we realize that in every role, and in every action, we have an impact on our family, community and in fact everyone with whom we come into contact. In short, we become leaders.
Choosing the best attitude
We’re taught by our culture to believe that our attitude is a natural expression of ourselves, and cannot be changed. However, when we carefully explore our possibilities, we discover many opportunities to improve our attitude. Once we realize how important our attitude is, and how many things about it we can change, we become motivated to explore new strategies of self-talk and improved outlook. With self-help books and tapes, seminars, workshops and other vehicles of growth and change, we can improve our approach to our work and our relationship with others.
Buck stops here
By exploring our value system, we realize we have been unconsciously assuming that many of our problems belong to other people, such as our coworkers, boss, spouse, kids, and almost everyone around us. Once we stop blaming we begin to discern opportunities to improve our situation by taking action ourselves.
As we explore our own role in life, we discover that we have developed an unconscious story about who we are, what we expect ourselves to do, and what others expect from us. This story, developed first in childhood and continuously refined throughout life, becomes the template by which we express our own role. When we take a closer look, we may discover that the story we’ve been following does not allow us to become the person we want to be, or the person who can best serve others. By reviewing what we want to accomplish in our lives, we can revise our story to more closely match our adult values and goals.
For example, while we grew up, we might have worshipfully looked up to older siblings and sneeringly looked down on younger ones. These attitudes, built into our story from childhood, affect the way we look at people. As we grow wiser and more aware, we realize that a better story would let us evaluate people on their merits, rather than blindly judging them by their position in the hierarchy.
By observing the things we say to ourselves, we discover a world of opportunity for change. Frequently our self talk contains unproductive or even outright negative statements about ourselves, our situations and people around us. Instead of saying, “This job stinks” we could say, “I’m going to overcome these specific obstacles.” Instead of saying, “I failed miserably” we could say “It would have been nice to meet all of my objectives, but I’m happy I accomplished some of them.” By changing the things we say to ourselves, we can change the way we feel and the way others perceive us.
When we think we are the low person on the totem pole, and think others have all the power and responsibility, we are running an old internal script that puts us in a dim light. Low self-esteem often places us in the role of a victim. If we feel bad about our ability to change things ourselves, we blame others for our problems, turning ourselves into helpless victims. By increasing our belief in our self worth, and reducing the intensity of self put-downs, we can free ourselves from a tremendous weight. Along with improved self esteem comes the responsibility for our choices, and the results of our actions.
Leadership and Command
In some roles, we are expected to take control and give orders. As mom, dad, doctor, or boss, we may assume that we must rigidly fit the traditional authority figure, issuing orders with little collaboration from “below.” However, when we order people to obey, we take the entire responsibility on our shoulders, relieving them of the opportunity to make decisions, and often denying them the sense that they are even seen or heard. Without that validation, they feel smaller and less important, diminishing the energy with which they accomplish their mission.
Fortunately, even in the most rigidly structured command position, we have options to open ourselves to the individual needs and input of the people in our charge. Harmony and mutual respect brings out the best in people. We remember that while each of us has a task, everyone wants respect and appreciation. We listen to input from others, remain flexible and place empathy and relationship at a higher priority than rules. We allow others to make mistakes, to do things differently than we would have done. To engage their full attention and energy, we explain goals and motivation, involving everyone in the purpose behind the work, and the reward at the end. By realizing how everything we do, including our attitude, affects others as powerfully as our commands, we “rule” by example, doing the things we expect them to do, giving them a role model they can follow.
We cultivate the creativity and energetic participation of others through our own enthusiasm, rather than by demanding it. Leadership is infectious. As others understand our respect for them, they gain respect for themselves and pass this empowerment to others. The pay off to this type of leadership is that we allow others to take responsibility for their own energy, contribution and personal growth.
These leadership values also apply to workers. When we passively obey orders, we are using only a small portion of our available energy. By carefully observing the way our actions affect the people around us, we realize that within the nuances of our role, we can bring people up or put them down. The clerk or receptionist may have a powerful effect on the morale of the organization, and the children of any age have a tremendous impact on the health and joy of the family.
Personal Growth and Development
Once we realize that we are accountable to everyone in our life, we begin taking our responsibility seriously. This awareness stimulates our own growth and energy. There is no better way to increase our sense of self-worth, to eliminate the sense of victim-hood, and to increase our pool of available energy than to realize how important our every-day life is to the quality of life of those around us.
However, this invigorating attitude comes with the price tag of additional commitment. Once we are ready to give up the limiting belief that we’re in it for ourselves, we begin to realize how much our actions matter and how much we can contribute. Instead of shutting us off to the results of our actions, we open ourselves up. We have to work harder, and stay involved in our actions longer taking pride and responsibility for the results. It’s harder to walk away from a poor job, saying no one will notice, once we realize our attitude and work affects so many other people.
While we usually think of a “leader” as someone out in front, telling us what to do, it turns out that in everything we do, we are leaders, whether we like it or not. When we act, others watch and learn, and may choose to follow our lead. When we choose negative approaches, we lead others down that road with us, and when we choose the high road, giving our energy generously, we inspire others as well. By realizing our effect on the world, we take our lives more seriously, and the energy of this responsibility pours through our lives and radiates beyond us to our family, our neighborhood, our work and the world.
See also: Assertiveness, Beliefs, Birth Order, Blame, Choices, Organizations, Service, Story, Work
The Fifth Discipline; The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge
Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership by Joseph Jaworski
Leading with NLP: Essential Leadership Skills for Influencing and Managing People by Joseph O’Connor
Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness by Robert K. Greenleaf
Greatest story ever told by Og Mandino
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results by Stephen C. Lundin Ph.D., et al