What We Ought to Do: A Lesson in Personal Leadership

What We Ought to Do: A Lesson in Personal Leadership

Like many folks, I tend to populate my life with “shoulds” and “oughts.” I’m not talking about ethical and moral claims on my life, not things like “I ought to be faithful to my wife,” or “I should tell the truth.” When we are in the realm of fundamentals, there are things that we ought to embrace as obligations.

I’m talking about all those other things we tell ourselves we ought to do. I ought to shed a few pounds before summer. I ought to take up a hobby like calligraphy, water color or karate. I ought to memorize favorite snippets of Scripture or poetry. I ought to replace the bathroom fixtures with something more attractive.

Nothing wrong with any of these things. But none of these things rise to the level of obligations, of things we ought to do. Put differently, none of them justify a judgment against ourselves if we don’t do them. We didn’t fail in any meaningful way. We just didn’t do something.

They only become failures when we attach commitments to them, when we attach the ought to the action. The obligation arises, not from the nature of the activity, but from our choice to accept a duty to undertake it.

Leadership and busy-ness seem to go hand-in-hand. In part, this is because people who seek to lead seek opportunities for leadership, and those opportunities come with time commitments. It’s also because others look to leaders to take action, whether action may be called for (by the leader) or not.

The resulting obligations can take more than their share of a leader’s time, energy and cognitive capacity. To keep up, leaders sometimes sacrifice other elements of their lives. When this goes on too long, when the deficit in other life areas grows as the leader pours himself/herself into the ever-widening maw of leadership obligations, relationships fray or break, health deteriorates and, at least ultimately, even the caliber of the leadership being offered diminishes.

But these obligations only become obligations because we’ve attached an ought to them.

One of the keys to successful personal leadership is a sharp-eyed, no-nonsense approach to determining whether something is, or is not, an obligation. Does the leader need to do it? Could someone else do it well enough, or perhaps better? Would inviting someone else to do it also invite that someone to grow in skills, abilities and confidence?

Does it even have to be done at all?

In practice, many obligations actually are choices. We obligate ourselves to things that, otherwise, would not have any hold on our time.

What if, every time we heard ourselves saying “I should” or, even more potently, “I must,” we stepped back and questioned the premise. Should I? Must I? Really?

What we can discover by this mental discipline is a vast field of choice about what to do, how to do it and when to do it. And choices are empowering.

By resisting our tendency to impose obligations uncritically upon ourselves, we can be freed to choose how to make the best use of all we have, for the good of those we care about, those we serve, and for ourselves.

It’s something, this year, we ought to do.



Whether it’s from discerning this implicit power dynamic or a council meeting with your peers, there are leadership lessons to be learned wherever we look. Join Holly McPhail and me online for our On Demand webinar, Discovering Leadership, as we explore some of the inspirations behind the leadership lessons captured in my new book, More than Self. Click here to to access.

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