Hillary Clinton has been quoted as saying that she was “afflicted with the responsibility gene.” Me, too.
It’s a great figure of speech, but I’m not convinced that this affliction is primarily genetic. Perhaps a certain temperament, endowed by nature, makes one more susceptible to the affliction. Still, I believe that this condition is primarily brought on through nurture.
One day when he was well over 75 years of age, my late father told me that the most important lesson that his father had imparted to him was to be responsible. With his voice breaking, he said that he hoped that he had managed to live up to this lesson. I was incredulous that he could have any doubt about this matter. Anyone who knew him would have said that responsibility was his middle name!
So I’m clear on how the responsibility gene was imparted to me.
The nonprofit sector, I suspect, is disproportionately populated with people afflicted with the responsibility gene. We care about other people, our communities, and our world. When things go wrong, or seem unjust, we want to fix them. When there aren’t enough hours in the day to fill all the needs or raise enough money, we want to stay longer and work harder.
Why should we even joke that this is an affliction? Isn’t responsibility a good thing?
Of course it is. But unalloyed responsibility can be too much of a good thing. It can lead to perfectionism, to burn-out, and even to illness. When we set our responsibility standards too high or define them too narrowly, we throw our lives out of balance. We forget that we have a responsibility also to our own well-being – that we cannot care for others effectively unless we take good care of ourselves, as well.
A narrow focus on responsibility also can lead to a short-sighted, problem-solving mentality on the part of nonprofit leaders. Years ago, as a new program director in San Francisco, I learned a lot from a wise consultant, Peter Goetz. Peter observed that whenever there was an incident or problem at the large homelessness program I led, I immediately wanted to embark on a discussion at the next staff meeting about how to address it. I felt responsible when something went wrong, and I believed that it was my job to diligently lead the staff in solving problems. Peter helped me to understand that when negative things happened, from minor to major, people were going to have a commensurate level of distress. In other words, they were going to have feelings – and until I gave them a forum for expressing those feelings, they were never going to participate effectively in problem-solving.
In truth, having the responsibility gene isn’t an affliction at all. As long as we take on responsibility with balance and sensitivity, it can be one of life’s most important character strengths. My father showed this great strength of character throughout his life. And over the years, he leavened his responsibility with an ever-gentler spirit and softer heart. This is the example that I aspire to follow.