Commitment is...action in the absence of proof


Let's get real for a moment...commitment is one of those words that get's too easily applied these days as the fixall for leadership. "We just need people that are committed!" is the common lament. As with empowerment, suddenly it becomes the cure all for an organization's issues when the deeper root causes continue to fester. The truth is commitment is not nearly as easy as we hope it would be.On the surface the reasons are many. Following are three reasons I observe most why leaders or their teams fail to commit:

  1. Uncertainty over the goal - Most goals are not thoroughly examined. They are chosen often because they look good to others, or appeal to a certain constituency however lack the gut level connection that is required to achieve it.
  2. Boredom with the routine - The blue-fish-underbelly of commitment is it requires a multitude of small actions rather than one big one. Culturally, American businesses are great starters but really suck at finishing, simply because we don't have the discipline to stick to the routine.
  3. Constrained by the choice - An unwritten implication of commitment is that to say yes to something and be successful with it means we have to say no to many other things. We aren't good at saying no. Just listen to the marketing message we hear from every angle these days, fifty million ways to say yes, just don't say no. Committing to everything is committing to nothing.
There is an underlying thread that connects these however that gets at the root of is the inability to know how things will turn out. Let's face it, to one extent or another we are all control freaks. We want to know how things will roll. No one likes failure, especially when its public and we have account to others for our actions. The seasoned leader tell us however, "it just doesn't work that way!"
Leadership guru John Maxwell, well known for his book Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones for Success, poses that its not the decision itself that is the most important thing, but in how we respond when the decision turns out to be the wrong one. It is this very fear of being wrong, of not having the proof to tell us the decision will work out, that ultimately undermines our willingness to commit.
Developing the confidence to commit in the absence of proof is no simple fix. It will take repeated failures and a few successes along the way to develop both the scar tissue and the "instinct" for it. The action steps are simple however to get us on the way:
  1. Make a choice. Period. The reality is even a bad choice is infinitely more valuable than a great one that is never made.
  2. Stick to it until a) it is painfully obvious, not only to you but your team that it is the wrong course of action, or b) until you reach your objective. If a), go to step 3.
  3. Be willing to admit you don't always get it right. Listen to the team around you (assuming you have people willing to tell you what you don't like to hear. If you don't, then you have bigger issues than lack of commitment and we need to have a conversation...)
  4. Change course, recommit.
Thomas Edison was asked once how he overcame all the failure in finally discovering a workable filament for the light bulb. He said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Now that's commitment!
So, what are you willing to commit to in the absence of proof?