(Colearn is building a network of schools and an education experience with a group of values that are at the center of everything we do.)
In today’s world, outward ownership is sorely needed. Our world is becoming increasingly complex and interconnected. We need leaders now who understand that their success is not only dependent on their own performance, but also on the performance of those around them, and even the performance of those further away, up and down, even across the world. We need leaders who understand the importance of collaboration and trust. And we need leaders who understand the power of enabling full and outward ownership from whole networks of collaborators. If we need these leaders now, we will need them even more in the future. Understanding how ownership works can enable any among us to become the leaders we need.
Outward ownership is not only about creating a better work or learning environment; it is also about creating a better world. By fostering an environment of trust, collaboration, and shared ownership, we can create a world in which everyone feels empowered to make decisions and take ownership of their work, everyone feels respected and valued, and everyone is encouraged to be their best selves. By practicing outward ownership, we can be the change we want to see in the world.
To publicly and confidently volunteer accountability and declare responsibility is to take ownership. On the near horizon, there are always things that should be done and things that must be done: a project, a task or set of tasks, a role to play or a way to serve. When we volunteer our efforts and show a willingness to assure success on behalf of others, when we knowingly agree to serve others through our behavior and our work, we become an owner. In a modern work environment, we can often hear “who owns this?” and “who owned that?” The magic phrase that floats around that can be a life changing opportunity is “who will own this?” To be an owner is to have a primary responsibility of, to be primarily responsible for the flow of inputs, the surrounding variables and the ultimate outcome.
But here’s the thing: we often can’t control the outcome, and often the complexity of the inputs and variables makes it so no one person could possibly own it all. To own something becomes a sacrificial and noble act: we must cooperate and rely on others, we must be vulnerable to the burden of complexity and the winds of chaos even when we take ownership. When we know all this, declaring ownership can be scary. Doubly so when we already know the outcome is uncertain, and doubly again when we can foresee the outcome could be unfortunate. To do so is not just brave, it is to embody leadership.
In all walks of life, there are many things of both minor and great importance that have no clear owner. A group of people can agree that they would like a certain outcome, and everyone can agree that they have some role to play. You will do that, I will do this, they will do those. There is cooperation, but there is no ownership, there is no leadership.
If things go well, if the desired outcome is achieved, it’s likely that many involved will suddenly declare some ownership afterwards. Success was achieved, a little contribution from everybody, but it was MY contribution that made success possible. We won, and I am the winner – so many of us might genuinely feel and declare. Somebody might even claim leadership after the fact: I was the leader, and if you didn’t notice you will – I will be the leader going forward (now that things are for sure going so well and now that we can claim success). This leader won’t feel like a leader to anyone.
If things don’t go well, if the desired outcome is not achieved, especially if the desired outcome is no longer possible, doubly so if the outcome is on a scale from undesirable to catastrophic… many involved might declare they had no ownership. They might even declare that other people owned the inputs and variables, so other people need to own the outcome. It wasn’t me, it was them, it was him, it was her, it was you. Retroactively establishing ownership in misfortune is no fun for anyone. It creates a new mess in the wake of the past one. Situations when someone needs to declare ownership can end up with a circle of finger pointing. Everyone wants to own success, no one wants to own failure.
When we are in circumstances that have devolved to finger pointing, when no one is declaring ownership, we can expect the situation to devolve. It’s likely there will be a search for THE TRUTH about who owned what, and who should be held to account for the undesired outcome. If we are lucky, there is some consensus on THE TRUTH, everybody can point to one bad input, one bad variable, one bad actor, one bad apple and assign ownership. It was the apple, it was bad. Good, we can move on from this mess.
But a lot of situations will have no such luck. There will be no ONE TRUTH, instead everyone will come up with their own truth. There will be no consensus, and we will find ourselves trapped in an unruly disagreement among different perspectives. It will be another mess. Everyone says no one is responsible – the system is responsible, or they are only 1% responsible and everyone else is 99% responsible. Some will admit that they are some responsible – but not 99%, only 49%, everyone else is clearly 51% responsible. Watch the finger pointing and get out a pencil: the math will not and cannot add up. The only truth will be that a group of people that used to trust each other suddenly does not, and this trust might just permanently break under stress.
If we are insightful, we will notice that this was never about the outcome. Nor was it ever about the inputs or the variables. It was about a group of people that trusted each other enough to come together to take on something. And that after this misfortunate mess, there will be another thing to take on. This was always about a shared trust to work together, and working together is either impossible or suffers when trust is no longer shared.
We will be amazed how trust can be restored: brave people amongst us can declare ownership. True leaders will declare their ownership outwardly – they will take ownership for things when all can see their role was tiny, they will take ownership for things when their only part to play was that they did not do anything when something needed to be done. It is my fault, I made the mistake, I did it wrong, I couldn’t foresee misfortune on the horizon. Someone should have, no one did, and I could have but I didn’t. I am not 1% responsible or 49% responsible, but I am 100% responsible. The bad inputs were mine, the surprising variables were mine too, the bad outcome I am responsible for. That misfortune no one wants to own, I will and do own it. Those consequences everyone dreads, I will face them. If there is a bad apple, it was me.
The first few who do this make it safe for everyone involved to realize that it turns out we all had a role to play. We are all 100% responsible. There is no way to assess how big or small anyone’s role was, only that we are 100% responsible for our part. When everyone points their finger to themselves, we see the math suddenly adds up. We are all imperfect apples. Once we begin down this path, trust can be restored, and we can come together again for the next task. And everyone will show the outward ownership that makes collaboration and teamwork not just possible but effective.
(Our Academies and Programs are not only built with our values they are built for encouraging the growth of young people in mind. If the value of outward ownership resonates with you as an individual or prospective family, please reach out to us, we would love to start a conversation.