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Duty vs. responsibility

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When I talk to CEOs about the gravity of their jobs, most begin talking about responsibility. What they “owe” -- to boards, investors, lenders, customers and employees.

But that’s a trap, set by those mentioned to ensure their interests are high on our obligation lists, and even higher on our guilt lists when things go wrong. And most of us accept it.

The trap? It’s the incentive to divert our attentions to the wrong things. To the concerns of others, versus what we know is most important for our business. To spreadsheets versus customers, as an example. And to days spent preparing for far-too-regular board meetings.

How to break the cycle? It’s easy. Start thinking about your obligation to your business as a duty instead of a responsibility. They’re different. Particularly in their effects on how you approach your job.

Responsibility comes from the outside. It’s transactional. “I’ve done something for you, and now you have a responsibility to me.” It’s also usually quantifiable -- not much different from a sentence or an indenture, which, on the bright side, you can shed once you’ve met its terms. With no lasting effect.

But as long as you are susceptible to its grip, as soon as you absolve one responsibility, it’s likely to be replaced by another.

Shift gears. Now imagine a standard of duty.

Duty comes from the inside. It’s not transactional. It’s moral. And it derives from a clear understanding of the principles by which you are going to live your life. It’s neither quantifiable nor time-bounded. And yours is are the only opinion that counts when it comes to measuring yourself against your standard.

A clear sense of duty supersedes any sense of responsibility to others. Your sense of duty says, in effect, “if I live up to my higher calling, everyone else will be taken care of -- appropriate to the alignment of their interests with what’s best for my business.”

Living to the call of duty protects you from diverting interest from what’s most important. And it gives you the backbone to stand up to anyone who challenges what you know is best for your business.

Duty, not responsibility, is the greatest source of power At The Top.


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Dick Cross

Dick Cross

Dick Cross is a serial CEO; a professional keynote speaker; a best-selling author; founder of The Cross Partnership Ltd.; and a founding member of Alston Capital Partners. Email him at Follow him on Twitter, @DickCross3.

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