Mr. Owen’s Lesson: The Irresponsibility Tax

October 30, 2012 10 Comments

On my first day of high school, I found myself in the history class of Mr. Robert Owen. Like many of my peers, the start of high school for me was a mix of insecurity, anxiety, and excitement.

I must have been a little too excited, because 10 minutes into class I found myself in the hall with Mr. Owen’s finger in my face. His question to me was simple, “do you want to stay in this class?” Mr. Owen made it clear to me that if I wanted to remain welcome in his class, I would have to change my behavior. The behavior that landed me in the hall this time would next time result in an entirely different outcome.

I have no idea why, but at the age of 15 I chose not to exhibit the self-serving bias and blame Mr. Owen for the consequences of my poor behavioral choice. It was not Mr. Owen’s fault that I almost got my self-absorbed ass kicked out of his class – it was mine. I understand now that Mr. Owen’s confrontation of my disruptive behavior was an act of service to me and the rest of his students. Never again would my behavior in that class obstruct Mr. Owen from performing the work he loved and had mastered. I took another history class from Mr. Owen the following year; he was easily my favorite high school teacher.

I don’t remember much from high school, but I will never forget Mr. Owen’s stern look and finger in my face that first day. I will always love him for teaching me the value of having the courage to stand up for your professional dignity and to confront those whose relentless pursuit of expedience erodes reasonable standards of responsible conduct and civility.

We really can do whatever we want to do; however, there really is an outcome for every choice we make. We are all individually and corporately path dependent. Leaders do their people a disservice by not clearly identifying the behavioral choices that lead to both growth and demise, then consistently holding accountable everyone that shirks self-accountability.

The people that benefit the most from clear behavioral norms are those that need them the least. The people that live and work above the code are also the ones most likely to assume full responsibility for their self-engagement at work. The transaction cost of policy enforcement represents an irresponsibility tax trustworthy organizational citizens pay for social loafers.

Mr. Owen paid that irresponsibility tax on my behalf when I was young. I am forever grateful.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (10)

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  1. Wendell says:

    I had Mr. Owen as well for two years. I remember him walking by me as I was reading a book in the library. It was not a very good book. He challenged me to ensure my choices were worthy of my time and effort.

    Don’t rob someone of the opportunity to be great by failing to providing appropriate performance feedback and establishing accountability. Top performers deserve other top performers.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Excellent point about top performers deserving other top performers, Wendell. Very well said. Thanks for sharing! Bret

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  2. Charles says:

    Mr. Owen was one of the great ones. I had him for Honors US History and was his School Service student for a year. He also taught me a finger pointing lesson. While I was his School Service student I was walking down the hall (I think with some friends) and I got a bit cocky and said “Hi Bob” to him. He immediately had the finger in my face explaining that as my elder and my teacher he should be called Mr. Owen, not “Bob”. Normally I was a good kid and very respectful….but he taught me a further lesson about always remembering my values that obviously I remember and still carry with me. By the way Bret, have you heard about Mr. Ward?

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Charles! Would love to have seen you call Mr. Owen Bob. You and I and Anne were all in the same weird Ward class together. Last I heard he was still alive and worshiping ELOM. Thanks, Bret

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  3. Jesse Stoner says:

    A wonderful, well-told story, Bret. Thanks for making Mr. Owen and his lesson come alive for those of us who did not have the good fortune to have him or someone like him as a teacher.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks, Jesses! Hope you are well. Bret

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  4. Art Petty says:

    Bret, great story with a powerful lesson! Thanks for sharing. Mine was Mr. McSherry, who kicked my rear-end around for under-preparing/under-performing on the Debate team. In a fit of irresponsibility I blew off some needed prep work…misled him on the reason and got caught hanging out at a school event. I still hear/see him to this day whenever I contemplate a short-cut.

    On a personal note, keep the blog posts coming. The world is a better place when you are writing regularly! -Art

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for sharing that story, Art. And thanks also for the kind words. Very appreciated coming from you. Bret

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  5. MJ says:

    Bret, thank you for this. I’m a leadership trainer and I can tell you that the sad truth is that many leaders are held hostage by this thing called political correctness now and they’re terrified of ending up in front of HR. Nowadays Mr Owen would be silenced or standing at parade rest in the principals office for getting in a kid’s face. To some extent, even parents have been neutralized under threat of social outing (kids posting videos of their parents on YouTube). Your advice is spot on Bret, I’m just not sure it’s viable in practice in many uber PC corporate cultures . I heard someone say “accountability is dead” the other day , and sadly I found myself nodding in agreement — not resigned to it mind you , just acknowledging the reality of it

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, MJ. I too fear accountability has become a dirty word. We’ve used that concept too often to blame and flame, but it’s a necessary component of both professional development and leadership. Thanks for sharing. Bret

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