A Mature Approach to Commitment

Ending Empty Promises

I recently submitted an article to a respected leadership journal about the crisis I see negatively affecting leadership in all sectors. It comes in the form of true commitment and what it has come to mean. I see this crisis as a global epidemic.

Much of the positive developments in our history as human beings have been the result of true commitment. However, true commitment is one of the scarcest human qualities today. People say “yes” or make agreements every day that they hold as tentative in their minds, subject to whim and convenience. As a result, we live in a world filled with empty promises which lead to widespread social cynicism which, in turn, leads to lowered expectations. What people say is often quite different from what people do. As an old saying goes, “We judge ourselves by our intentions while judging others by their actions.” If we judge ourselves with the same criteria – our actions not our words – then we may start to see how culpable we are in this weakening of our social fabric.

It is so easy to give lip service to doing the right thing, stating the moral high ground, saying what people want to hear but an entirely different moral toughness is required to keep our word – to do what we say we are going to do. After years of hearing these tentative “commitments” the rest of us have gotten used to people reneging on their promises and not keeping their word. The worst of it? It has become “socially acceptable”; that is, we have grown accustomed to people failing to do what they say and we let them off the hook. Empty promises have become quite common.

Here are a few suggestions for making and keeping commitments:

  1. True commitment requires passion. Does what you are committing to uplift you and make you come fully alive or does it burden and drag you down into dejection or despair. If you cannot find passion for something then look and see what really upsets you and commit to changing that. Anger about a social condition or injustice suggests a passion for changing things.
  • Make the commitment explicit and public. Go on record in some public way so people who support you can hold you accountable for your commitment.
  • Be sure your commitment doesn’t compete with another commitment you have already made – consciously or unconsciously. Harvard’s Robert Kegan has written extensively about how subconscious commitments can conflict with those commitments we consciously choose, creating a competition or opposition which leads to frustration and inner conflict.
  • Believe you can achieve what you commit to. If you don’t believe it can be done you won’t make the effort. Be realistic and not grandiose.
  • Be a stand for your commitment. Don’t take a position against something. Positions invite opposition; stands are more powerful. Lynne Twist writes about this: “Taking a stand is a way of living…and you have the capacity to move the world.” Taking a position she writes in contrast “does not create an environment of inclusiveness and tolerance…” Positions are often against other positions and are frequently motivated by wanting to be right.
  • Embody your commitment. Be sure your commitment is not simply an idea in your head, a noble thought, but that it becomes part of who you are, part of your personality and way of living. Commitment lives in your heart or as Merriam Webster says “being emotionally impelled.”

One of my favorite quotes about commitment is from explorer William H. Murray who wrote quite succinctly in his 1951 book, The Scottish Himalaya Expedition: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.” As I mentioned at the start of this article, recent years have seen a collective backing away from true commitment and, what is even worse, we let people get away with it by not holding them accountable. Our passivity is complicit in this decline of commitment.

Let us stand for optimism about the future and hold one another accountable for the promises and the commitments we make. Perhaps we can restore our faith in one another and trust we mean what we say, keep our promises and stay true to our commitments. If we do, cynicism will fade and our collective attitude about the future will significantly improve.

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