Picture three people, briefcases in hand, standing on a commuter train platform.  Their train is 10 minutes late, they don’t know why, and no one’s made any announcement about it.

The first person texts her friend about how typical it is that the train’s late, and how this always happens when she has an early morning meeting.

The second person knows that there’s a transport website that updates commuters on late trains.  He checks this website on his smartphone, discovers the train will be another 10 minutes, and settles into a game of Angry Birds to wait it out.

The third person also checks the transport website with her smartphone.  When she discovers the train will be another 10 minutes, she goes up to each of the other two people on the platform and lets them know what the situation is.

I wonder which one of these three people you would want as your leader?

Here are the three stages of responsibility on the path to inspiring leadership.

Responsibility Stage One – Not my fault

The first stage of responsibility is not taking responsibility at all.

You’re at this stage if finger pointing is your modus operandi when things go wrong or don’t work out the way you want them to.  You grumble and moan, make excuses, and lay the blame on anyone and anything that isn’t you.  And you do nothing to change the situation.

If members of your team are at this level, they’re hard to work with and a drain on your energy and time.   When they tell you 10 minutes before a deadline that they’re going to need an extension, they have all the excuses in the world about why it’s not their fault.

If you lead from Stage One, you’re not leading anyone.  Not even yourself.

There is no leadership in Stage One.

Responsibility Stage Two – I’m responsible for me

The second stage of responsibility is an enormous leap forward from “not my fault,” because in stage 2 you take full responsibility for your feelings, your actions, and your results.

You are conscientious about your work, and if something you’re doing doesn’t work out, you acknowledge your part in it and work to make it better.  You deal with your “stuff” because it’s yours to deal with.

When you operate from Stage Two, other people’s “stuff” is their stuff and it’s none of your business, pure and simple.  It’s theirs to work out.  If it doesn’t directly impact you, you don’t get involved.  After all, you’re responsible for yourself, and they should be responsible for themselves, too.

If members of your team are at this level, they are pleasant to work with.  They’ll give you discretionary effort if they make a commitment to complete something and it takes longer than they thought.  You can count on them to do their job.

If you lead from this level, you are leading you.

Stage Two is the level of self-leadership.

Responsibility Stage Three – I’m responsible for us

You’re at the third level of responsibility if you take responsibility for yourself, and you take responsibility for everyone else in the team.

Do not misunderstand this level.  This is not about having no boundaries.  This is not about taking on other people’s “stuff” for them, or letting them walk all over you.

It’s about accountability.  It’s about holding others responsible for their actions, for their behaviour, their contribution.

It’s about being there for them when they need it, in such a way as to build their sense of safety and security in the team while holding them accountable.  At this stage, you take responsibility for your “stuff,” and when other people’s “stuff” comes up, you are there for them in a way that serves them, and serves the team.

This is the level of inspiring leadership.

What Stage Three really means

The third stage of responsibility, inspiring leadership, means your team know that if a problem comes up for one of them, you won’t look the other way, you won’t be passive aggressive, and you won’t go overboard.  You’ll deal with individuals and situations respectfully, in their best interest, and in the best interests of the team.

I’ve seen strong teams start to self-destruct when one person is allowed to descend into poor behaviour that is unchecked by the boss.  Suddenly, the rest of the team feel let down and unsupported, like you haven’t got their back anymore.  Accountability is gone, because the person whose job it is to create a safe environment isn’t handling things in a Stage Three manner.

The challenge

There’s nothing wrong with Stage Two, the stage of self-leadership.  It’s a fantastic place to be, where you feel a sense of control about who you are and how you behave.

But if you want to be an inspiring leader, you need to take up the Stage Three challenge.

How can you increase that sense in the team that you are there for them, and always will be?  That when things don’t go well for them, they can count on you to be there for them as they deal with it?  That when they drop down to Stage One, you’ll remind them of their accountabilities?

Your team is standing on the platform, waiting for the train.