Leadership & Responsibility (with a capital R)


In these first months of 2019, I'm adding a new piece to my work: the role of Interim Executive Director of Youth in Action, a youth development nonprofit in Providence.

I'm excited—taking the helm of an organization is a new challenge for me, and the specific needs of an interim role feel suited to my skillset.

Between this new role, developing Penney Leadership, working with coaching and consulting clients, board service, motherhood, homeownership, and all of my other roles—I have a lot of responsibilities.

That's what it is to be a leader, right? Over the years of growing as a professional, climbing the ladder through successive job titles and taking on increasingly more and more responsibilities.

Early in my career, I looked at the leaders around me and wondered how they could juggle so much responsibility (and why would they want to?)

I've learned that there's a whole different way of approaching responsibility and leadership—a mindset that's not anxious and draining but instead sustainable and whole. 

Here's the secret:

A few years ago, as an emerging leader, I envisioned each responsibility as a weight that I carried on my shoulders. I talked about taking on "Responsibilities" as though the word started with a capital “R.” I laid awake in the middle of the night worrying about how I could muster the strength and endurance required to carry them all. I felt pressured to not only shoulder them, but to do it with grace and exceed everyone’s expectations—most of all my own.

It’s no wonder I felt so run down, behind the ball, and anxious—I was crumbling under an incredible weight of all those Responsibilities. 

In the midst of this crumbling, I happened to listen to an episode of the Magic Lessons podcast with Liz Gilbert in which Liz told her guest: “Let me remind you of the definition of the word responsibility: the ability to respond.”

My ears perked up. I hadn't considered this definition before: What would happen if I thought about Responsibilities not as something that I shoulder day in and day out—but instead as my response-ability, my ability to respond?

I need to remind myself of that distinction this week as I step into this director role—filling my notebook with tasks, processes, contacts, and passwords and adding a new email address to my life (I now have four).

I am not there to carry the organization (impossible, an expectation/recipe for disaster). There will be no crumbling here. My role is to respond to what arises. 

Reframing responsibility flipped something profound for me: I went from worrying about whether I was strong enough, struggling, and putting my own needs last to showing up as who I am—with my knowledge and experiences and the resourcefulness to fill out anything in between—and making sure that I cultivate my health so that I can respond with my full capabilities. Now, leadership is a skill, not a burden.