Yesterday I relinquished a responsibility …..

December 13, 2013

… and then I waited for the response somewhat anxiously.*

I’m one of those people who takes on loads of commitments. This has pretty much been a lifelong habit. For most of my life this has also been a successful strategy for personal and professional development and has contributed greatly to my achievements in life.

Taking on new opportunities and challenges has enabled me to learn new skills knowledge and set myself apart from my peers. It was a way of communicating to anyone who cared: “Hey, I’m good, just look how busy I am and how well I take on new challenges”.

And it worked. That old adage of “if you want something done, give it to the busiest person’ seemed to apply and people would ask me to do more and more. I started taking on formal leadership roles at university and got my first management role in my late 20’s. I got headhunted and for a time being, quite highly paid. So it was not only a successful strategy but a strategy for success.

I kept putting my hand up, driven by an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, social justice and of course, good old-fashioned ambition. But for the last couple of years, that strategy hasn’t been adding to the quality of my life, it’s been detracting.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been coping with pain and discomfort in my wrist, forearms and lately, upper arms too. The lack of balanced activity in my life (too much time at the computer and not enough opposing activity) has left me with weak upper arms and shoulders. Fortunately my physio confirmed that I do not have any cartilage or tendon damage or problems with my carpal-tunnel. For that I’m grateful. These aches and pain are manageable, curable even.  Not everyone is so lucky.

The shooting pains and pins and needles have driven me to reexamine my life and how I lead it (again). It’s clear that I need to reprioritise. So I’m trying to slow down, increase the amount of exercise I do, focus on doing more of what I enjoy. But slowing down also means doing less.

The idea of giving things up, fills me with dread. “People need me” my overdeveloped sense responsibility would whisper. “Because I can, I must help”. If I tried to quit a group, all someone had to do was express dismay and I would quite possibly, come running back.

But here is the thing. It’s not just a sense of responsibility and social justice that compels me, there is clearly a strong ego-driven competent here. Some of you might think this has been obvious all along, but it wasn’t that obvious to me. And if it was, I did a pretty good job of pretending it wasn’t.

The truth is that it feels good to be asked to do things. It feels great to get thanked and praised and receive those imaginary gold stars of recognition.

That whisper of “They need me” may be true (and often it isn’t) but that doesn’t mean they can’t get it done without me. To make a blanket assumption otherwise would be nothing short of arrogance. Why would I assume that I am so integral? Why should I doubt the capability of and therefore devalue the people around me?

I’ve always been a know-it-all, confident in myself and perhaps a bit arrogant. But I’ve also prided myself on my leadership skills. I suppose what’s dawning on me is that sometimes leadership means not doing something because you place your faith and confidence in others, thus empowering them to do whatever it was they asked you to do.

Writing this reminds me of one of the first leadership roles I ever had. I ran a group of peer educators for a number of years at university and worked closely with a friend called Liz to run the events. She made a point of telling me one day that she had never thought she would be able to take on leadership roles like that and credited me with empowering her to do so.

From my perspective she had always been capable, she just hadn’t had an opportunity or someone who believed in her abilities. That’s a form of leadership that isn’t discussed as much as some of the other, more obvious traits. In this case leadership can be about clearing space for others and demonstrating our confidence in them.

So I don’t have to sacrifice well-being to help save the world and I sure can help build the belief in others that they can make a difference.

* by the way, I can happily confirm that this responsibility has remained relinquished.


2 Responses to “Yesterday I relinquished a responsibility …..”

  1. Dad said

    Even as a small child, Karin, your behaviour was characterised by unselfishness and preparedness to help others; when some hoarded, you always spontaneously gave and shared whatever you had. In adulthood that instinct morphed into preparedness to help alleviate the social burdens of others and to readily accept responsibility in the workplace.
    Acknowledgement and a sense of being needed may have acted as cues to focus and guide your efforts, but were never ends in themselves for you; it was always your innate generosity of spirit that was your guiding light.
    Sometimes, to maintain balance, one must step back instead of forward; but be content that in doing so you allow through light that also gives others an opportunity to shine.

    • Dad, thank you. That brought tears to my eyes.
      I was once (in a very shaming way) told that I must be always seeking external validation, why else would get involved in so many things. What you’ve just said shows that they were dead wrong. And that comment stayed with me ever since and was the source of much self-doubt.
      Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.

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