Future of Work

Taking Responsibility: The Role of Personal Accountability Today

Shelby Scarbrough

My friend Diane Brown uses a phrase in her teaching: “Control the controllables.” So much of life is out of our control. The one thing we have influence over is how we behave and being accountable for that behavior.

When I was fifteen years old, my parents started what would become a forty-year journey as owners of Burger King restaurants. My sisters and I worked in every position: cashier, cook, cleaner, you name it. No excuses, no slacking, no special preferences. Regular employees. During this time, they started to teach us to “think like an owner.” It did not mean we could walk around with an attitude like we owned the place; rather, it meant constantly looking around for a way to improve the restaurant, help another crew member, clean up our messes, show initiative, and take responsibility if we made a mistake and learn from it.

To me, being personally responsible means owning my own life, taking charge of the course of life and not leaving it up to anyone or anything. Things happen, sure, but how we respond to them is up to us. Doing so takes courage, acceptance of our imperfections, and a realistic view of life.

The demise of personal responsibility occurs when we resort to blaming people or circumstance for something within our control. Personal responsibility is not an innate ability in all people, but we are capable of learning the skills required. We can practice a few habits that make us more accountable:

  1. Keep our commitments with other people. If we must back out, let the other party know the reason, without excuses.
  2. Respect other people’s time.
  3. Train ourselves to not take anything personally.
  4. Catch ourselves when we start to blame others.
  5. Refuse to complain.
  6. Find something joyful to focus on, and express gratitude.
  7. Work on self-love.
  8. Apologize and own our mistakes, and then work to grow and learn from those
    mistakes.

By no means is admitting to ourselves that we make mistakes or are imperfect an easy pill to swallow. However, when we become aware of the proven effects of being accountable for our actions, the long-term gain from our accountability to ourselves far outweighs the short-term discomfort of admitting we were wrong or cleaning up a mistake.

As a protocol officer at the U.S. Department of State under Ambassador Lucky Roosevelt, one of my favorite times was when the team gathered to debrief after a “visit.”* My immediate supervisors were two people I would come to cherish: Deputy Chief of Protocol Catherine “Bunny” Murdock and Assistant Chief of Protocol Julie Andrews Petersmeyer. Bunny loves a good drama but hates sloppy protocol. Her management style was to ask us, “What’s the story?” That was our cue to recount all the things that had gone wrong on the visit, and we would laugh and grimace and have a moment of shared humanity.

Bunny would subtly coach us by asking, “So, what could we have done differently?” She knew that no visit would ever be perfect and there were always going to be stories to tell. However, this was our time to own our errors and our opportunity to take responsibility and continually hone our craft. I am eternally grateful for that training.

Looking back on those days in the offices of Presidential Advance and Protocol, the best reminiscing and stories come from the disasters (or almost-disasters) and mistakes. We try to get together once a year and, in an environment of trust and respect, we share hilarious, sad, anxiety-ridden, and all-around amazing stories of the mishaps with world leaders. Shhhh. I’ll never tell.

What would our lives look like when we are fully responsible for our actions? According to Linda Galindo, author of The 85% Solution: How Personal Accountability Guarantees Success, No Nonsense, No Excuses, we experience decreased stress, we up our productivity and improve our relationships, and we love and respect ourselves more.

Personal responsibility is an essential factor in the overall practice of civility. Accountability builds trust with the important people in our lives. People who blame others for the ills of their own lives cause others to turn around and run away. It becomes difficult to build lasting relationships built on trust and respect when your friend or colleague is chronically late, does not own up to mistakes, or finds fault in others but never seems to see their own failings. It’s just a bummer.

The day we start taking personal responsibility for our own lives, we’re ready to become positive contributors to society. The day we stop blaming others for the turbulent state of our world, we’re one step farther along on the road to true peace in our hearts. We’re that much closer to harmonious living with our fellow humans. If we are willing to look into our own hearts and work to adjust our own perspectives, we can embark on a journey to leading a more civil life. But I consider it a practice, like medicine and law: we must continually work on our civility if we are to master it. Although we will never be perfect, humans can become exceptional at civility with determination, effort, and practice.


The above is an excerpt is from Civility Rules! by Shelby Joy Scarbrough.
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Shelby Scarbrough
Shelby Scarbrough began her career in the White House as a member of Pres. Ronald Reagan’s advance team, where she helped coordinate such landmark events as the Reagan-Gorbachev Moscow Summit. She then served as a protocol officer in the U.S. Department of State. In 1990, Shelby founded Practical Protocol, LLC, a company that plans bespoke events for foreign dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, and Lech Walesa.

Shelby’s experiences in both public service and the private sector have given her a unique insight into the practices that lead to positive relationships and productive communication between individuals, countries, and societies. Shelby resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is a speaker, entrepreneur, and writer.


Shelby Scarbrough is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.