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Responsibility, Authority, and Knowing Your Limitations

“He’d be a much nicer fellow if he had a good swear now and then.”

John Tyndall, 19th century physicist


Responsibility is a personal obligation to do something, from taking out the trash to accomplishing a long-term assignment. Most reasonable adults will rise to their responsibility, yet may cringe when being held strictly accountable. Understandable, yes, but too bad for them.

Here’s the perspective: you are responsible for the mission, and you must hold your people accountable. That is the essence of being effective, and the sooner you grasp the distinction, the sooner you will be a functional, go-to leader.

You are responsible for everything, whether you see it or not. The trick is anticipating the problem before it occurs.


Do not wait for authority to be conferred on you. An intelligent leader does not “poach” decision-making from others, but the responsible military or business leader will be held accountable for everything he or she sees and can act upon.

That is worth repeating. The military requires all leaders to act decisively on anything in their view or field of vision or personal knowledge, if at all possible. Same with a business.

If a leader sees an overt act that is illegal, unethical, or immoral, he or she must do something. If a leader sees a scrap of paper in the hallway, he or she should pick it up if it isn’t too nasty. Nothing is too large or too small or simply “someone else’s job.”

When you act, do so decisively. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” applies most of the time. It is critical to act as you would expect your boss to act – you are using authority that has been delegated and entrusted to you. Power is not a gift. It is the most sacred of responsibilities conferred on a leader.

Perhaps you may have observed that good leaders with great power and responsibility always try to use restraint, thoughtfulness, and only enough juice to get the job done. No sense going to DEFCON FOUR on an incorrectly collated report or missed conference call.

The counterpart to the judicious leader is defined by the axiom, “people with a minimum amount of authority always use it to the absolute maximum of pain.” Ever meet up with a DMV clerk who tolerated a misspelling?

Laughable, frustrating, and mostly unnecessary.

Good leaders use only enough of their authority to see a job situation through to a reasonable and successful conclusion. Be that leader.

Sometimes you will be given an assignment that you perceive you have a limited amount of authority to execute. Do not leave the room until you have the parameters defined. Military leaders are trained to always ask subordinate leaders for questions, or for points of clarification, as lives may depend on it. To do less than ensure complete understanding may lead to mission failure.

Engineers take great pride in knowing what they do not know. They see a problem, and define the “unknown” factors quickly to ascertain work required timelines and probabilities. It can be helpful to try to think this way, especially as new challenges crop up unforeseen. When the limit of your authority becomes the new “unknown” in a mission, get help immediately. This is not a failure on your part. Chances are your boss didn’t see it coming, either.

There will be moments when you lack the ability to do it right. There are a couple approaches to this, and RTFB is a good start. If that won’t do it, tell your boss you need more firepower, and then prepare to bear the brunt of your admission. But try to do it yourself, first.

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