Right or Responsibility


“They should have shoveled the stadium.”

When I first heard this statement, I was dumbfounded. I just couldn’t believe it. I remember feeling shock, anger, and despair.

During a professional football game last December, a number of fans pummeled the field, players and sideline people with an avalanche of snowballs and ice. Innocent fun by a bunch of rowdy fans? Hardly. One man was knocked unconscious.

When questioned about the inexcusable behavior, one of the culprits responded, “They should have shoveled the stadium.”

Because there was snow in the seats from a recent storm, some fans suddenly felt they had the inalienable right to throw snowballs. They were somehow absolved from all responsibility of behaving like civilized humans, because someone else did not shovel the stadium.

This small, isolated incident haunted me for some reason. It got me thinking about a lot of things that seem to be pulling our nation down the wrong path. When I thought about the principles and ideals on which our nation was founded, I came to a disturbing conclusion. Something has gone terribly wrong, and not only at football games.

Today, government spending is clearly out of control. To most baby boomers, there is no longer any security in social security. The court system is more about redistributing wealth than about distributing justice. Juries avoid rendering unpopular decisions for fear they will result in riots or other social carnage. Criminal’s rights are preserved more fervently than victim’s rights.

The trauma is obvious in business as well. Corporations with any kind of profitability are deeply resistant to releasing consistently poor performers in any “protected class” for fear (in cost, time and reputation) of having to go to court to defend a just decision. They must also spend heavily to protect themselves from the growing number of frivolous lawsuits filed against good, safe products.

Socially, we seem to have become a melting pot of “hyphenated Americans,” more focused on individual ethnic pasts than on a collective, American future.

How the hearts of our country’s forefathers must ache. Surely this was not the vision of America about which they dreamed two hundred years ago. So what happened? How did we get to where we are today?

Although there is no single answer, a common pattern points to the cause of many of these difficulties. People are focusing almost exclusively on their rights with little to no regard to their responsibilities. We are more and more frequently choosing to disregard the principle that basic rights require basic responsibilities. The negative results from this gross imbalance are not only predictable, they are inevitable. And they are not good.

Responsibility is more than just a word associated with more work or part of the empowerment equation. It is the basis of solutions for some of our most profound dilemmas. We can no longer blindly act as if problems will solve themselves.

Neglecting individual responsibility is bad enough, but what makes the situation even worse is our uncontrollable reflex to immediately point the finger of blame at outside forces or other people. It might be useful in an autopsy, but blaming other things, whether they are other party politicians, big business, or stadium personnel does nothing to resolve the woes we face.

I have asked many people in industry what they believe to be their basic work rights. Equal opportunity, to be respected, a safe work environment, fair pay, and time for family or personal needs are frequent and immediate examples. When I ask what responsibilities they must assume to ensure these rights for themselves and others, two things happen, First, there are fewer responses and they come forth much slower. But quite often, the responses are deflections or arguments, justifying how someone else is responsible. That someone else is many times the company, the government, perhaps even Wall Street. It is a distressing trend, that has reached epidemic proportions.

Most workers believe they are entitled to a safe work environment. But if no individual worker is responsible for contributing to or maintaining it, who is? Everyone else? Management? OSHA?

They also claim the right of equal opportunity. So now when passed over for a new job or even the rare promotion, they feel deprived, even cheated. In their minds it’s because they were the wrong color or sex, too old, or stuck working for a bunch of jerks. That they were passed over because they never accepted nor acted upon their responsibility to continuously learn new skills, and add real value to their organizations never occurs to these workers.

Sadly, some people who have kept themselves truly qualified, are illegally cast aside because of color, sex or age. Along with their understandable feelings of anger and unfairness, they have the legal right to seek justice and reasonable damages. But they must also accept the responsibility (for themselves and others) to follow through on that right. I pull for them to win.

Although our Constitution may guarantee some basic rights, the marketplace doesn’t, and a growing number of workers feel violated. Those basic rights that we depended on as guarantees by our place of employment no longer exist. The marketplace has shifted and the enduring, lifetime contract for employment between company and employee is history. Our right to tenure-based promotions has even disappeared. And boy, do we complain about it.

Not even large, powerful corporations with great histories of market domination and financial prosperity, have the right to a guaranteed future success. Just ask IBM, the auto-makers or Apple Computer.

So what can we do about it?

When I reflect back on some of the things that have contributed to our country’s growth, prosperity and civility, The United States Constitution immediately comes to mind. For over 200 years, it has served as our changeless core in changing times. It has provided America with purpose and direction, serving as a beacon to the future. It contains the Bill of Rights and other amendments, clearly spelling out the protected privileges and special entitlements that Americans enjoy.

Perhaps what is needed with the Bill of Rights is a Bond of Responsibilities. Maybe if people became as focused on their responsibilities, as they are verbal about their rights. the current mood of denial and blame would change dramatically. I believe it would.

In any thriving relationship, be it marriage, friendship, or a legal business contract, both sides ante up, even at times when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable. Each party accepts the responsibility to make the entire relationship work. That is a strong foundation for success, because when rights and responsibility are in sync, things usually are working well.

For example, people have the right to vote. But they cannot exercise that right until they fulfill their responsibility to register. We also have the right to free speech, but free speech without responsible speech leads to catastrophe. Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is still illegal.

The challenge in bringing responsibility back into focus is with ourselves. We must individually start taking responsibility for our pieces of the problems, rather than blaming or waiting for others. Here are some suggestions for getting started.

Spend a minute reflecting on your own rights. Write them down. Consider those rooted in morals and guaranteed by law, as well as those that have just seemed to evolve (like the right to plop down on the couch with a tall, cold one right after work).

Examine what you are doing to maintain or preserve the rights. Do you feel any responsibility for them? Are you demonstrating it?

Think about some of the problems you are facing in your personal or work life. Perhaps you are not getting along with some of your co-workers, your boss or even your spouse. List some of the immediate causes that come to mind. How many of your answers point the finger at the other person.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do with any problematic situation you face is this. Wrestle with the question, “What are you doing (or not doing) that is contributing to the problems you face?” Dig deep before answering. While this dialogue with yourself will likely be very uncomfortable, it will be both revealing and liberating. You will discover options which are, indeed, under your control, which means you are not totally helpless or powerless. But then, you will have to honestly confront your resolve to take action. Action is the real test of responsibility.

If you criticize more than you create, you are a “whiner,” and whining does not solve problems. So, the next time you get seduced into those gratifying rituals of confessing other people’s sins or lamenting all the problems of the world, think about the stadium snowball incident. Remind yourself the rights you enjoy can only be secured through your own responsibility for them. Shift your sights away from everyone else and back to yourself. Invest yourself in eliminating the growing national pastime of denial and blame, by accepting and acting upon your responsibilities. You will be surprised at the difference that will make.

Copyright (c) 1996, International Leadership Associates

Submitted for Publication, March 1996

Steven C. Coats is a partner with International Leadership Associates, a leadership training, education and consulting firm in Cincinnati, OH.