Obligation in Leadership – Does it Serve you Well?

Obligation in Leadership – Does it Serve you Well?

There’s a motivational state that has been evident around me the last few weeks and months – and in myself sometimes – obligation.

Do you know this one? It’s the state of mind we can get into with a commitment that sounds like:

  • I have to go along, see this through, keep going…
  • I can’t say no – or what I really think…
  • I’m bored…frustrated…tired…distracted
  • This isn’t working…this isn’t what is should be…this should be…
  • So-and-so doesn’t know what they are doing…
  • I’ve tried to change it but it doesn’t work, if I say anything it won’t make any difference
  • Here we go again…
  • I have no choice…

So you show up for a meeting and this is your state of mind. ‘Going through the motions’ comes to my mind as I’m writing this. I have done this many times! Something at some point may peak my interested, but other than that I’m 50% – sometimes – 25% in.

At some point I said YES to this commitment and now I’m acting out a NO.

And then what most likely nicely piles up is resentment and/or resignation. We then go about (consciously or unconsciously) playing this out with some of the following behaviours:

  • Distracted, disengaged, not giving our full attention (playing with our phone is a popular one)
  • Withholding of information, knowledge or contribution
  • Acting bored or indifferent
  • Not really fully participating or speaking up about what one is unhappy or frustrated about
  • Moaning, complaining – we do like to do that don’t we!
  • Colluding with others outside of the meeting to diagnose ‘what’s wrong’
  • Mentally justifying one’s own disengagement, inactivity or lack of attention

We are literally rejecting or resisting the situation right now – AS IT IS. Well we have tried haven’t we?

The thing is when we show up in a state of obligation, not only are we not taking responsibility for our part – we have also already condemned the situation as ‘over’.  We have closed the door our willingness to see possibility, get creative or be open to the conversation as it is happening. There is nowhere to go after that. Obligation is the path we are on and there’s a perceived self preservation in that – and a nice familiar place to hide out – being a martyr or a victim or ‘knowing better’.

There’s a big fat NO in us and the essence of that will trickle out affecting the atmosphere.  And of course the ensuing resentment is like poison, slowing sucking the life out of everything. This may sound dramatic but it’s very real when it happens and can be extremely toxic in an organisational culture.

As Nelson Mandela said:

‘Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die’

My question is: Would you really want to keep this going? We all play a part in the context, what’s created in any given moment. You have the absolute power – at any time – to choose something different.  To choose a different way to BE and behave.

Don’t underestimate how much one person’s willingness – yours – can affect the atmosphere and outcome. As a very wise person once said to me ‘your way of being, your behaviour are like perfume – people can smell it’.

People in high performing, empowered cultures show up much more in a motivational state of willingness. A willingness to be open, to say what is so for them – even if this is uncomfortable. There’s a willingness to be honest, fully participate, focus on the quality of their own experience and that of the team. There’s a willingness to be uncertain, creative, uncomfortable, collaborative. They take personal responsibility for the part they play and how this contributes to the bigger picture.

So here are five suggestions and insights that I’m hopeful will support you (and indeed the bigger picture in your own organisational culture):

  • Purpose – what’s your purpose for being there? For saying yes in the first place. Is your purpose still valid or true? Are you and/or the team getting what you came for? Is your purpose big enough to see you through when things don’t go how you would like? Sometimes admitting to ourselves that we don’t want something anymore or it’s not working out is tough. And letting go can take huge amounts of courage…however it can also create room for discourse, something else, other ideas, people or possibilities…
  • Choice – Is it really true that we have no choice? There may be consequences to making a different choice – however I put it to you that this is not the same as not having a choice. What we can always choose is how we are with the choices we make. There is a big psychological difference and impact between and attitude of ‘obligation’ and ‘willingness’
  • Are you IN or OUT – in light of your or the team’s purpose, do you really to keep going? Is it serving you, others or the purpose to keep going? Are you contributing in the way you want to? Are you creating the results you want? What needs to happen for you/the team to be more engaged, committed…fully IN…100%
  • Tell the TRUTH – if you are not happy or don’t what to be there. Speak up, leave, say no, let go. Tell the truth about how you are feeling and what you’d like to see change. No guarantee of course that you will get what you want! Have your voice though, even if it is not what others want to hear. You do yourself and others a disservice by not speaking up. I can’t count the times I have been fearful to say something and then when I do there are countless others who say ‘yes, I thought that’. And then we have course corrected or cleared up what was in the way. Your willingness to be open and truthful creates the space for others to do the same
  • You – by being in a state of obligation the person who loses out most is YOU. You diminish your voice, you minimise your wants and needs, you minimise that fact that YOU matter and your contribution matters. Avoiding taking responsibility for yourself in this way also diminishes the part YOU can play in creating something different – whether that’s staying where you are or not. Contexts shift constantly – you can choose to change yours proactively and consciously or ‘ride along’ in obligation.

So, as always the choice is yours…

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