“Your life is the sum result of all the choices you make, both consciously and unconsciously. If you can control the process of choosing, you can take control of all aspects of your life. You can find the freedom that comes from being in charge of yourself.” — Robert Bennett, U.S. senator
Accepting responsibility for choices starts with understanding where our choices lie. This idea is wonderfully framed by the timeless wisdom of the ancient Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Each line represents an important step in growing our leadership. Consider the first – an invocation to “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
There is a long list of things we as leaders can’t control, but may have a major impact on our organizations. These include economic and political trends, technological changes, shifts in consumer preferences and market trends, as well as catastrophes wrought by human beings (war, terrorism) and so-called “Acts of God,” such as hurricanes or tornadoes. The poet Longfellow offers great leadership counsel about how to handle these non-controllables when he says, “The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain.” Pretty solid advice!
The fact is that stuff happens. Life isn’t fair. Whatever hits the fan certainly won’t be evenly distributed. The best approach to dealing with things that cannot be changed is to accept them. The worst thing we can do is to succumb to the Victimitis Virus and “awfulize” the situation by throwing pity parties in Pity City. When the doo-doo starts to pile deep, a leader doesn’t just sit there and complain (usually about “them”); he or she grabs a shovel. We may not choose what happens to us, but we do choose how to respond – or not.
The second line of the Serenity Prayer asks for “the courage to change the things I can.” This is the gulp-and-swallow part. Choosing to make changes is hard. It’s so much easier to blame everyone else for my problems and to use this as an excuse for doing nothing. But leaders don’t give away their power to choose. In his bestseller, The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck writes, “Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual or organization or entity. But this means we then give away our power to that entity, be it ‘fate’ or ‘society’ or the government or the corporation or our boss. It is for this reason that Erich Fromm so aptly titled his study of Nazism and authoritarianism, Escape from Freedom. In attempting to avoid the pain of responsibility, millions and even billions daily attempt to escape from freedom.”
It takes real courage to accept full responsibility for our choices – especially for our attitude and outlook. This is the beginning and ultimately most difficult act of leadership.
The concluding line of the Serenity Prayer – “and the wisdom to know the difference” – is perhaps the toughest part of all. In our workshops with management teams we often get into lively debates about those things over which the group has the power to act. We attempt to classify them as belonging to three categories: No Control; Direct Control; and Influence. It’s rarely black and white. For example, we often underestimate the influence we might have in our organizations – or in the world at large. But as Robert Kennedy once put it, “Each time a man stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
We’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. There is no neutral ground. Strong leaders make the choice to be part of the solution and get on with it – no matter how small their ripples of change may be.