The Responsibility of Leadership

This is the second of a two-part series on leadership. You can access part one of this series here.

Often, the most respected and admired leaders are the ones who are most inspiring. Think about Steve Jobs, Herb Kelleher and Walt Disney, who are heralded as some of the most dynamic leaders and visionaries of the past century. Like each of us, they had faults, but they turned ideas into companies by articulating visions and relentlessly pursuing them into uncharted waters.

The same can be said for history-shapers like Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr. – what they were doing had not yet been done before, yet they plowed head-first into sculpting what a world would be like with independence and equality.

We can learn a lot by studying catalytic leaders of the past and present. They have much to teach each of us as we consider leadership responsibilities in our own lives.


For companies and organizations, visions of the future don’t necessarily have to be grandiose or culture shifting, but they must exist. It’s a leader’s responsibility to, in concert with others, develop the vision, articulate the vision and hold themselves and others accountable to it. To do this, they must spend a lot of time thinking. Tammy J. Montgomery, district court judge in Sumter County, Alabama, put it this way when considering the differences in a leader and a manager, “A leader is a ‘thinker’ who has the inspiration, energy and drive to shape opportunity. A manager is one who systematically executes the plan.’”


Once you determine the vision, you must align the organization to ensure proper outcomes. If your goal is to be realized, it’s critical that each and every person not only understands the mission, but is aligned and on board with what it takes to achieve success. In order for that to be the case, a leader must have total clarity on the organization’s actual current state – begin by asking “Where are we now?” – and the desired future state – “Where are we going?” The gap between the two is the change that must occur.

Much is written about “resistance to change.” At Markstein, we do not believe that people fundamentally resist change, they resist – and often fear – negative fantasies of life after the change (Erik Winslow, who I miss badly, taught me that). Needless to say, change management can be very difficult and often is the biggest part of a leader’s job. While it may not always be where most of his or her time goes, it is everpresent. Knowing how to manage change, predicting how people will react before, during and after change, and navigating change are key abilities that leaders and leadership teams must possess. A leader continually must ask:

  • What areas need to change and by when is the critical point that they must?
  • What is the best way to engage my team in this change?
  • How can they be empowered to help create the change?
  • What can our people handle? How much is too much?
  • How does our organization wrap its arms around this change?
  • Who will lead the cause, and when will I step in or out?

Carol S. Hunter, communications director for the Downtown Mobile Alliance, shared that leaders must focus on outcomes: “When I feel that I know what I’m doing, I’m managing. When I’m in uncharted waters, I’m leading. Management is doing what you know how to do, and doing it well, maintaining the status quo. Leadership is taking risks, and challenging the status quo – knowing that you will sometimes fail, and being willing to take the fall.”


Obstacles inevitably arise during the execution of any vision. Nothing is ever perfect, and there are few times when you can predict every twist and turn that managing change will throw at you. The difference a leader can make in these instances starts with helping to ensure that the vision is carried out. A leader must know when to press his or her team and motivate them directly, and when to step back and trust the team to keep executing. If a leader is a good steward of the vision, the team will be able to see the next steps clearly.

“Leaders are able to ‘skate where the puck is going to be,’” explains Eric P. Jack, dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business. “Leadership outcomes tend to be more transformational and effective, based on an intense focus on solving the right problems that yield the most impactful results for all stakeholders. Leaders are more focused on making transformational changes based on a shared vision.”


As a leader, you should be inspired by the people with whom and for whom you work. You should accept responsibility should your team fall short, and give praise whenever and wherever praise is due for a job well done. In my experience, leaders who go on to become aspirational examples to those around them and continually serve as supportive and empathetic guides by keeping the goal in sight outperform those who manage by fear or let occasional obstacles stop them or slow them down.

Leaders do the right thing, especially when no one is watching. In doing so over an extended period of time, they earn the trust necessary to garner the respect of the people around them.

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