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The Opportunity of Obligation

| | General Leadership

Take a moment and think about the things you have on your plate over the next month.  How many of them are you likely to do purely out of obligation?  By that I mean things you will do just because you said you would or are expected to by the people around you or even simply because someone put it on your calendar.

It could be things like that monthly meeting you are annoyed at having to go to because it is a waste of time.  Perhaps it is a weekly conference call you have been asked to participate in by someone important to you, but you do not see the value in you being there.  It could even be an upcoming family event you are absolutely dreading.   Consider where you have or are likely to show up like a fly on the wall or worse, bringing a mood of “I wish I wasn’t here” along with you.

Unfortunately, reality is that some things we just have to do whether we want to or not, right?  Then again, maybe not…

Some things we do simply because we said we would.  Others we do because they are expected by work, family, etc.  Of course, there are also many things we do just because we want to.  Yet it is those things we do in service of our commitments that give us the greatest sense of satisfaction.  They are also the source of our most significant contributions to others.

When we act from our commitments vs. out of obligation, there is a huge difference in both our experience and the outcomes, both intended and unintended.

How do we know we are acting based on our commitments vs. obligation?  We choose. We may even show up out of obligation, but we choose to be there in a way that forwards our commitments and the commitments of others.

Obligations are not a problem in and of themselves.  We all have them and the more responsibility we assume the more obligations we are likely to have.  However, we can choose how we relate to each and every one them.  And that choice can make a huge difference for us and everyone involved.

What I am really asking you to consider here is this: where are you investing your time and energy doing things that you feel are wasting your time, causing you angst, squandering your spirit and/or for which you are just going through the motions?

After all, if there was not some sense of obligation to something or someone attached to them they probably would not be an issue would they?  You would just cross them off your list without a second thought.

Acting out of obligation may seem like the right thing to do in the moment but consider that the cost is very high.  We waste our time and energy.  We also waste the time and energy of the people around us.  When we do anything purely out of obligation we are highly unlikely to add value or energy to the experience of others.  We often suffer, experiencing frustration, guilt, and even exhaustion when we take on more than we can handle.

We are also squandering an opportunity to lead.  When we act out of obligation we are not choosing, we are complying.  And if we are complying we are certainly not leading.  We have no power when we allow ourselves to be a victim of our obligations.

However, what we do not tend to consider is that there are a multitude of payoffs for obligatory behavior. Why else would we engage in it given the cost?

Looking good, staying safe, and avoiding the angst of upsetting the status quo are a few of the payoffs that come to mind.  After all, who wants to tell the boss that their monthly meeting is a waste of time, or your friend in another department that they run a lousy meeting, or your mother that you don’t want to come to Sunday dinner?

Of course we cannot eliminate all obligations from our lives.  Most of us would not even want to!  But we can choose to relate to anything we do or are going to do based on our commitments.  It is not our circumstances but rather our relationship with our circumstances that gives us power.

Here are some examples of what that could look like…

1.  If that monthly meeting is a waste of your time, consider what can you do to ensure that time is valuable for all involved.

2.  If you have a weekly conference call and you know you are not the only one complaining, why not put the conversation on the agenda so you can stop talking about it at “the meeting after the meeting”, and start making productive and satisfying use of that time?

3.  If you must go to an event you really don’t want to attend try choosing a purpose for being there that will make a difference for at least one other person.

Your choices in how to relate to your obligations will either have you lead or have you perpetuate a costly and unsatisfying status quo.  Choose wisely.  If you look through the lens of your commitments you are likely to see an endless array of choices you can make.

So where are you just going through the motions?  Where are you wasting your time and/or the time of others?  Where are you squandering your spirit?

If you have an answer to any one of these questions other than nowhere, what are you going to do about it?  You now have a choice to make.

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Mike Henry   |   29 June 2009   |   Reply

Susan,

These are great thoughts and questions. I am reminded that I need to either choose to live in the moment and devote my attention to the situation, devote some energy to improving the situation for all or just say no. I seldom just say no, but sometimes that’s my best choice because I can’t devote the energy to fixing something. Thanks for making me think, which you always do so well.

Mike…

Joe Williams   |   30 June 2009   |   Reply

Thank you for the distinction between commitment and obligation, Susan. I do commit myself to a number of items. Am I obligated? Not necessarily. The commitments I see as adding value, whether it be to accomlish a task, communicate information, plan, or teambuild.

Daniel Chan   |   18 September 2009   |   Reply

I just discovered your site via Results.com and I have enjoyed everyone of your Posts. I appreciate the distinction you have made between obligations and commitments. I see obligations like something within the Circle of Concern that I have little say. However, when I choose to make a paradigm shift in response to the obligation (that I dread) and commit to do something in line with my values, I have moved myself into the Circle of Influence, and I am empowered as a result. I also feel how well we can change a situation will depend on how much we choose to act in line with our core values. The more aware we are to our values, the more easily we can proactively realign ourselves in any given situation.

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