Is Individual Responsibility and Leadership Eroding Or Just Easier to See?


Scholar, author, and leadership commentator Gary Becker posts The Erosion of Individual Responsibility in the influential Becker-Posner Blog.

It’s an excellent piece. I recommend you read it. When you do, read it from a Responsibility Process™ point of view. You’ll gain some insight into how much we, as a society, view responsibility and leadership as character traits rather than mental processes as the Responsibility Process teaches.

Becker suggests the melt-down of the mortgage industry is a result of erosion of individual responsibility in our society:

This type of response to failed decisions is not unique to the present housing crisis, but is part of a strong trend toward shifting responsibility to others.

This statement, embraces the personal responsibility concept, and sheds light on the heart of both the solution, and the problematic cause, our “response to failed decisions.” Yes (and, I would add, our choice to own or not own our power and ability to lead ourselves into and out of jams, messes, and other situations). Becker also offers several examples of the erosion of individual responsibility throughout his post:

The many excuses offered by some home owners for their plight, and also eagerly by the authors of these human interest stories, is that the borrowers did not understand that these introductory interest rates might rise a lot after a few years, or that they would have negative equity in their homes if housing prices stopped rising and began to fall. An obvious alternative explanation for their behavior is that they gambled that the good times would continue indefinitely.

My Take

I don’t know if Becker’s observation is due to an actual erosion of individual responsibility or drawn up from the sheer scale of increasing opportunity now available to us in our society; however, using the seven positions in the Responsibility Process give us the opportunity to take advantage of this environment.

Think about it: If you lived a hard-scrabble life a hundred-fifty years ago on the land, or on the sea, with no societal infrastructure and a very low level of interdependence with others you had no one to shift responsibility to. But in a society of increasing interdependence and plenty, with infrastructures and regulations, and social programs, and mandated education, and, and, and, and… then the opportunity to shift responsibility is everywhere and increasing.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not setting up the same old arguments here: “entitlements versus personal responsibility,” “more social programs versus less government,” or “capitalists versus socialists.” I am observing that the opportunity to educate the world about what responsibility is, has never been greater.


Because it appears that our individual daily opportunities to shift responsibility, to seek positions of blame, and nurture victim mentality are continuously increasing. I have found that the tendency to transpose opportunity to blame and/or shifted-responsibility are functions of:

  1. abundance, and,
  2. interdependence.

And that allows for commentary like Becker’s. Where he sees erosion, I see observation. To drive the metaphor a bit further, when my parents bought a house in 1963 on the shore of Lake Erie ninety feet above the lovely beach and crashing waves, they knew little of the decades—or eons—of erosion. But when ten feet of our back yard disappeared and slid into the lake one day drastically reducing our acreage and affectively moving the cliff closer to our door as well as the eventual demise of our house, they become observers (and soon thereafter, sellers).

Hard-wired and conditioned to avoid responsibility?

The Responsibility Process™ shows us that we all avoid responsibility when things go wrong. Responsibility Process poster

If you are inclined to Lay Blame, then the litigation system is increasingly available to you. And finger-pointing is free and amazingly successful at attracting and re-directing attention.

And if you are inclined to Justify, the drama of the media will always lend a helping hand (see quote above about “human interest stories”).

If you are inclined to Shame, then you can find an expert who will name your malady. Personally, I suffer from When-Is-Someone-Going-to-Take-Responsibility-Around-Here Rage myself. It appears when I read political commentary, journalists reports, and bloggers posts complaining about someone not stepping up and taking responsibility the way the complainer would have them do. Each side of any conflict or campaign does plenty of this.

The Bottom Line

Good news! We now understand (and take advantage of), the mental mechanism by which people either avoid or take responsibility. It works identically in everyone. Taking responsibility is the result of mentally traveling all the way through the Responsibility Process. And not taking responsibility is the result of stalling out somewhere in the mental process.

It is no longer a question of why some people do and others don’t (take responsibility).

No, the better question is why do relatively responsible people like you, me, and Mr. Becker, engage in irresponsible behavior on a daily basis, and what can we learn from the process? How can I practice responsibility with this informed awareness?

Informed awareness of the Responsibility Process changes the conversation about responsibility and leadership. Awareness composes our experience of the situation from observable. What can be observed can be learned, and what can be learned can be taught. And that means we can develop a curriculum—which is what I’ve assigned myself to do. Wouldn’t it be cool if social commentators like Mr. Becker could assess society through the lens of Responsibility Redefined? Maybe someday soon they will.

What do you think?

Posted in Leadership, Responsibility on 04/16/2008 06:49 pm
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