Owning the Outcomes; Renting the Responsibilities

When I worked on the college campus, semester’s end was always a goldmine for dumpster divers. Actually, they didn’t even have to dive; just roam the curbs and the apartment complexes. There they would find stacks of still desirable furniture that apartment tenants willingly left behind. Departing students also often left their security deposit, seeing it as spent money not worth recouping compared to the hard work of cleaning and detailing the home they would never see again.

Most of us in North America now live in such a discard and dash world, one offering an abundance of products sufficiently constructed to last for a decent amount of time, and inexpensive enough to ditch without guilt when they break. The cost of repairing often exceeds the cost of purchasing new.

Of course, being guilt-free depends on not considering the many costs never accounted for: all that trash going to a landfill; the packaging, shipping, storing, of new goods, etc. And there is a huge psychological cost, perhaps the most important one of all. If you buy a cheap product you don’t expect to last, what’s your incentive to try and preserve it? To take care of it? To truly feel a sense of ownership? When so many purchases become impermanent, doesn’t that also make the quality of life somewhat temporary?

That’s why I find something valuable (and not just nostalgic) about objects and institutions designed to endure, ones sturdily crafted to pass from generation to generation. Many leaders say we no longer can create organizations and companies that are Built to Last as identified by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their seminal work of the same name. Fast Company magazine years ago introduced questioned if organizations instead needed to be built to flip.

I think a hybrid of the two perspectives is probably true: we need organizations that overall are built to last, but ones with products and programs that are built to flip to meet timely needs and aspirations consistent with the organization’s timeless purpose and values. But are individuals living in a world in which little is built to last prepared to thoughtfully steward an organization that hopefully will endure? If they are used to throwing something out when it breaks, how will they address the typical challenges and setbacks encountered in organizations? Will they understand the importance of taking the long view for decisions and program development, not just cranking out something good enough for now?

While stakeholders and society ultimately determine if our organizations and their initiatives are built to last, we still choose how we approach our leadership responsibilities. Let’s choose to find pride in creating or contributing to something that might stand the proverbial test of time, of being a part of not just the timely but also the timeless. Let's make the choices that will allow our organizations to be homes for many more generations. No landlord is standing by for all call when something breaks. We can’t be content to leave the place trashed and hope our security deposit will cover the damage.

All of us are temporary stewards, and we have to own the outcomes even while we rent the responsibilities. That’s the only way our institutions and organizations have been passed on to us; it’s the only way we can do the same for the next generation of leaders.