Duty Vs. Responsibility

  • September 8th, 2014
  • Dick Cross

When leading your business, what responsibilities will your sense of duty allow you to accept?

When I talk to CEOs about the gravity of their jobs, many bemoan their burdens and responsibilities. They talk about what they “owe”—to boards, investors, lenders, customers, and employees. But that’s a trap, one set by those just mentioned. It ensures that their interests are highest on your obligation list, and even higher on your guilt list when things go wrong. And most of us step right into the trap.

The result is that we direct our attention to the wrong things. We divert our energy toward the concerns of others rather than toward what we know is most important for our business. We focus on spreadsheets rather than customers, for example. We spend far too many days preparing for far too regular board meetings rather than on customer calls or on simply thinking, quietly, about our businesses.

How do we break the cycle? It’s easy. Start considering your obligation to your business as a duty rather than a responsibility. Duty is different from responsibility, particularly in its effect on your approach to your job. Responsibility comes from the outside. It’s transactional. “I’ve done something for you, and now you have an obligation to me. ”It’s also usually quantifiable, not too different from an indenture, which, on the bright side, you can shed once you’ve met its terms. But as long as you are susceptible to the grip of responsibility, you won’t get rid of it. As soon as you check one responsibility off your list, it’s likely to be replaced by another. Or maybe more.

Shift gears and imagine instead a standard of duty. Duty comes from the inside. It’s not transactional—it’s moral. And it derives from a clear understanding of the principles by which you intend to live your life. It’s neither quantifiable nor time-bound. And yours is the only opinion that matters when it comes to measuring yourself against a standard of duty.

A clear sense of duty supersedes any burden of responsibility imposed upon you by someone else. Your sense of duty says, in effect, “If I live up to my higher calling, everything else will be taken care of, appropriate to its alignment with what’s best for my business.”

Living up to the call of duty protects you from diverting interest away from what you know really makes  a difference. And a clear sense of duty gives you the backbone to stand up to anyone who challenges what you know is best for the future of your company.

Duty, not responsibility, is your greatest source of power at the top. Take a few moments in each of your sixty-minute sessions to work on a statement of duty.

Take your time. There’s no rush. This can be the work of hours, weeks, or, in some cases, months. Allow simmering time. Allow time for each word to materialize and settle. Allow your collection of words to resonate deeply inside you until the moment that a proclamation arises and literally lifts you off your seat. You’ll know you have it when, head cocked back, walking around the room, you repeat your statement of duty as if preaching to a riveted audience, like you’re delivering the Gettysburg Address.

“My solemn duty is to  __________________.”

Don’t stop until you get there. Because once you get it right, it never leaves you. Once you’ve got a statement of duty that resonates, it will serve you continually as a moral compass that lets you discern responsibilities you’ll accept, because they align with your unswerving sense of duty.

The catch? The only way to get there is alone. Thinking deeply. And a great time for that?

Sixty minutes three days a week

About the Author

  • Dick Cross
  • Dick Cross

Dick Cross is the founder and Managing Principal of The Cross Partnership III, a twenty-year-old, Boston-based, “hands-on” consulting and turn-around firm focused on improving the operating and financial performance of businesses owned by financial sponsors. Over the past decade, Dick has served as an interim President/CEO, leading successful business transitions in eight companies over the past twelve years.

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