The Return of Responsibility

The Return of Responsibility

The similarities between Chicago, Illinois and Campe Verde, Arizona are few. Some would say they are almost non-existent. Chicago, with a population of over 3.5 million, and Campe Verde, population of less than 11,000, shared something important during the five-day period of June 22 – 27, 2011: juries who held leaders responsible for their actions.

The trials of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and disgraced self-help guru James Arthur Ray both ended in guilty verdicts. Blagojevich was found guilty on 17 of 20 counts of corruption. Ray was found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide from deaths in a sweat lodge ceremony. And though some would argue that the verdicts in both cases were never in doubt, the results could have gone either way.

Here are three lessons leaders can learn from these two seemingly unrelated cases:

1. Actions speak louder than intent. James Ray called the sweat lodge deaths an accident Rod Blagojevich repeatedly said that he never intended to sell the U.S. Senate seat for personal gain. In the end, it didn’t matter. The jury made a decision based on their perceptions about the respective actions not the intent.

I believe that James Ray would not intentionally put anyone’s life in jeopardy. But the description of his behavior during and after the sweat lodge incident created doubt about his intentions.

The lesson for leaders: Others – not knowing your intentions – evaluate you by their perceptions of your behavior and actions.

2. Pay attention to the details. At the end of his trial, Blagojevich said, “Well, among the many lessons I’ve learned from this whole experience is to try to speak a little bit less.”

Giving the former Governor the benefit of the doubt, one would have to wonder why it took so long for him to learn this important aspect of public life. He was a two-term governor in a state with a history of corruption in his office. He promised reform in his 2003 inaugural address. You have to pay attention to the details.

The lesson for leaders: Noble and grand ideas are great. Details and execution matter. A mediocre idea supremely executed is more valuable than a big idea executed with mediocrity. And when it comes to a promise made, you had better worry about the details.

3. The trust you hold is sacred. The primary lesson from both Blagojevich and Ray is that followers expect leaders to take responsibility. They volunteer their trust in leaders and expect, in return, that it be honored.

One of my client’s once quipped, “The biggest problem we have in our company is that no one will take responsibility for anything. But, don’t quote me on that.”

The lesson for leaders: The guilty verdicts for both Blagojevich and Ray, hopefully, point to a return to followers demanding responsibility from their leaders. When that happens, we’ll witness a transformational change in how we think, act, and solve the problems that face us.

About the Author:

Randy Pennington
Randy Pennington is an award-winning author and a leading authority on helping organizations deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change. To learn more or to hire Randy for your next meeting, visit or call 972-980-9857.
  • Excellent, as usual. I love how you weave the story in with the lessons. Well done. I’ve long been an advocate of taking responsibility … for the good as well as the bad. What sort of role models would we be for our children and the next generation if we continue to be selfish, non-accountable and to take liberties that are in actuality, against the law. If you are in a public position or in a position to influence (as are motivational speakers) … it’s even more important to “walk the walk.”
    Thanks, Randy.

    • Randy Pennington

      Thanks, Ann. As I looked at these two cases, the common message that people want their leaders to take responsibility jumped out. I hope these two incidents are an indication of a broader trend.

  • Jan Pitchford

    Great observation! Responsibility, honor, integrity… hallmarks of leaders with character.
    Your comment on grand and noble ideas, “A mediocre idea supremely executed is more valuable than a big idea executed with mediocrity,” is particularly resonant.
    Thanks for your insight. Also thanks to Larry Winget for sharing this on Facebook which I will also do!

    • Randy Pennington

      Thanks, Jan. Glad to have you visit, and thanks for sharing with your friends.