Critical Leadership Skills Series: Responsibility

December, 2023

Join Unstoppable co-founders Vikram Maraj and Kevin Gangel to explore this set of four critical leadership skills that unlock unlimited potential in people and organizations. 

In a world of nonstop change and perpetual polycrises, a state change in leadership is needed now more than ever — yet organizations today reveal a stunning lack of leadership, with just 11% of surveyed organizations reporting “robust leadership.” This vacuum offers a massive opportunity to those willing to look inward and re-examine their ingrained thought and behavior patterns. 

For innovative solutions to build the world of the future, leaders must do the work — first for themselves and then for their organizations — to develop new mindsets. Most leadership training fails because it considers only the day-to-day challenges organizations and individuals face without ever addressing the underlying mechanisms that impede true change. 

Through decades of work with organizations of every type and size, Unstoppable has identified four key leadership skills that foster cultures of unlimited potential: authenticity, responsibility, courage, and adaptability.

In a four-part series, Unstoppable co-founders Vikram Maraj and Kevin Gangel deep-dive into each of these skills. In this edition, they focus on developing habits and cultures of responsibility. Read on to explore Kevin and Vikram’s insights on responsibility, and how it can open the door to innovation, growth, and even corporate miracles. 

Describe the conventional notion of responsibility — and how Unstoppable’s definition of responsibility is distinct. 

Kevin Gangel: What reaction do you have when someone walks into the room and says, “Who’s responsible for this?” Is it a good feeling? No. It’s like in the old Scooby-Doo show when everyone takes one step back and suddenly we have a “volunteer” to be responsible. Sucker!!! 

Vikram Maraj: What we mean by responsibility is a profound sense of ownership, not some weight around your neck or burden to bear. Our distinct kind of responsibility is the experience that “this is mine” — the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it. I am not a victim of anything, and the world didn’t “do anything” to me. I am the maker of my destiny. What I have in front of me is of my making, and I have infinite agency to accept or alter what I have made. 

KG: Instead of a burden, what if responsibility were defined as the ability to respond — any time and in any situation? Wouldn’t we all want more of that? And what if responsibility were not something assigned to us, but something we took on for ourselves? It’s like saying, “That’s mine. Why? Because I say so.” 

Why is this kind of responsibility an essential skill for any person or organization looking to effectively navigate complexity? 

VM: Without responsibility, leaders and organizations constantly feel like they are hostage to complexity: the ever-changing tides of technology, political whims, market shifts, pandemics, the economy, the revolving door of leadership. With our version of responsibility, leaders are freed from having to engage in the pointless exercise of “whodunit” —  i.e. finding the person or situation to blame. They can get on with creating solutions. They get to bypass the drama other organizations are steeped in. Leaders who are responsible have power and agency. They see options and opportunities where other leaders are blinded by fault.

There is an approach to life that claims the power of saying “I’m responsible for that” when things aren’t going the way you want them to. This demands you let go of the blame and shame that we have all collapsed with responsibility and take a new and empowering approach to responsibility.

-Kevin Gangel, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

KG: No responsibility, no action. No action, no results. Ergo, no responsibility, no results. Without responsibility, everyone is just waiting around for someone to tell them what to do. Responsibility is most critical in times of complexity or chaos. When do we most need our maximum ability to respond? During chaos. 

If I say “You’re responsible” or “They’re responsible” or “That’s responsible,” then I have no power. They are the responsible ones over there, so what am I supposed to do? But when I choose to say “I’m responsible — why? Because I say so” then clearly there must be something I can do about it. Now I will naturally look for where and when I did something (or failed to do something) that is correlated (not causal) with the situation. I can always be responsible for what I did or didn’t do (who else could possibly be responsible for that?!). Try it, and you’ll notice an immediate uptick in your power and groundedness in a situation. 

What stumbling blocks limit this kind of responsibility and how do we overcome them? 

VM: There are two stumbling blocks: blame and victimhood. Blame and victimhood are mindsets ingrained in every human being. The way to overcome them is to recognize this “program” and its devastating impact on your power and creativity — then, let the program go. I dare one leader to give me an example of creating an innovation while being a victim. Victim and innovation don’t go together. When people say “necessity is the mother of invention” what that means is that there is finally enough pressure in the “necessity” that for a split second you finally stop being dominated, victimized or oppressed by your situation. In that moment there is a space of clarity and ownership from which invention happens naturally, because everything else is finally out of the way.  The art is in claiming the responsibility already there and available to you without having to wait for the pressure to crack you and force the innovation. 

Responsibility allows for learning rather than fault-finding. Learning organizations always kick ass and grow, unlike their counterparts who are busy playing it safe.

-Vikram Maraj, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

KG: Every human has an inherent sense of responsibility. We see it during natural disasters. People spring into action, do things they wouldn’t normally do, and almost invariably take care of each other — up to and including sacrificing their own safety to protect the safety of others. It’s the same responsibility we see in young children who want to “help” well before they’re of any actual use. But one day, good and bad, right and wrong, guilt and pride, blame and fault enter the conversation, and our natural sense of being responsible, of proactively lending a hand, fades. 

Consider this: As small children, some of the first words all of us learn are “good” and “bad” and “right” and “wrong”. Then we get thrown into a group (usually at school) where we are immediately in competition to see who can be the most “good” and “right” most often. We learn how to “win” in the system. This winning is usually in direct contradiction to being responsible. It’s some combination of “Look at me!” when things are going well, and “I didn’t do anything” when it’s not. Both work against proactively seeking out and claiming responsibility.

Years later, we land in a new group (work), where we are told to “collaborate” and “take risks.” Who the heck is gonna be responsible for anything after 12+ years in a system that actively discourages it? We’ve learned to protect ourselves in pursuit of something invisible yet tangible: the approval of others. Once we fear losing that approval and admiration, we choose when and where to “be responsible” very carefully.

How does a culture of responsibility help organizations cultivate an environment for growth? 


KG: Teams that are sustainably successful in producing breakthrough results are teams that encourage and reward being responsible for breakdowns, failures, and surprises. There is an approach to life that claims the power of saying “I’m responsible for that” when things aren’t going the way you want them to. This demands you let go of the blame and shame that we have all collapsed with responsibility and take a new and empowering approach to responsibility. 

VM: When you’re responsible, nothing can blindside you. Why? Because you’re the source of all of your successes and failures, all of the predictable and unpredictable things that happen to you and the organization. You’re not a victim of anything — you’re the author of your situation. When everyone operates from responsibility, people take appropriate risks knowing that failure is possible and even inevitable. But instead of blaming, they learn. Responsibility allows for learning rather than fault-finding. Learning organizations always kick ass and grow, unlike their counterparts who are busy playing it safe.

How have you seen this play out in real life? 

VM: I coached a corporate leader in Slovakia who, in one powerful moment in 2015, helped launch profound national change by taking responsibility for the view that she and most CEOs in the country held of politicians: that they were “corrupt pigs.” In the basement of a 100-year-old church in Bratislava, she turned to face a young, newly elected member of Parliament. With tears in her eyes, she said, “I don’t even know you, but this is how I have held you. No wonder you and other young leaders can’t make change. I paint you with the same brush as the politicians of my past. Our mistrust has stopped any cooperation and any progress.” The politician was moved to tears. In the next two years, corporate, political, and NGO leaders would come together in unprecedented ways that led to the election of Zuzana Caputova, the youngest and first female president of Slovakia.

KG: On a smaller scale, I worked with an HR manager who used this powerful version of responsibility to resolve a two-year union dispute and save $100K in one 20-minute conversation. After a long series of communications breakdowns, conflict, and tension, a mediator had been brought in and the two participants were engaged in “shuttle mediation,” which is when the mediator “shuttles” between the two rooms because the participants can’t be trusted to speak directly to each other anymore.

In a moment of reflection, the HR manager realized she was operating inside a reality she had created based upon these assumptions: “There can only be one winner,” “This is personal,” and “They make no sense.” She chose to be responsible for that world of assumptions, interpretations, and ways of being (all of which were unique to her, so only she could be responsible for them). She asked to see her counterpart in the hallway. She shared everything she had discovered and then asked a simple question: “Is this personal for you?” And it turns out it was, as she was told very loudly by her counterpart. Then she asked “What else?” and he told her. And again she asked “What else?” and he told her, not as loud this time, and she just kept being responsible for how it was going and how it had been going, free of blame or shame or fault. 

At the end of 20 minutes, she asked “What else?” And he said, “I guess that’s it.” “So, what do you want to do now?” she asked. The response? “Let’s settle for $5K.” This was an $80K dispute — $75K was saved in 20 minutes. “When do you want to do that?” she asked. “Let’s write it up right now,” he said. They sent the mediator home three days early, saving another $24K. In the end, $99K was saved, all from someone choosing to be responsible because they said so, not because anyone asked or expected it. That’s how corporate miracles happen!

Vik Maraj is a co-founder of Unstoppable and serves as Head of Design and Delivery.

Kevin Gangel is a co-founder of Unstoppable and serves as CEO.

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