Commitment is one of the most overused words in business. Browse any book, article, or website devoted to demystifying leadership, organizational change, or business transformation, and you’re going to find the word somewhere.
That saturation creates a problem for coaches like me. When I utter “commitment” to a client, I immediately get a response like, “Please don’t use that word,” followed by accusations of using consultant speak.
Here’s the thing: I like the word because it represents one of the most powerful actions a person can take. Committing is a uniquely human ability. It’s what enables us to climb mountains, build grand cathedrals, cure diseases, lead history-making movements, sustain long-term loving marriages, and build great organizations.
Without commitment, such grand accomplishments would be impossible. In this way, commitment makes the impossible possible.
What is commitment?
I define commitment simply: commitment is an intentional choice to eliminate all choices but the choice to move forward. When you commit, it is as though you step through a doorway, close the door behind you, and then, the door vanishes. There is nowhere to go but forward.
President John F. Kennedy’s remarks at the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center in San Antonio, Texas, on November 21, 1963, describe this concept well:
Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall— and then they had no choice but to follow them. This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it.
Most people give technology the credit for putting men on the moon, but I disagree. It was commitment. If Kennedy had not rejected all choices but the choice to move forward, the moon mission probably would have died with him.
But it didn’t. When Kennedy committed himself, he committed all of us along with him, because that’s what leaders do. We were all in, charged with the task of putting “a man on the moon and bringing him home by the end of the decade,” and we had no choice but to follow through.
How does one commit?
Often in organizations, when people say they’re committed, what they’re really saying is, “I’ll do my best,” or “I’ll try.” But as Jedi Master Yoda once said, “There is no try. Only do or do not.”
A commitment is not a promise to do your best. A commitment is a solemn declaration that you will do whatever it takes, regardless of the events or circumstances, to reach the goal. Tom Petty describes the mindset well: “I won’t back down / No I won’t back down. / You can stand me up at the gates of hell / But I won’t back down.”
I emphasize the word “declaration” because committing and declaring are irrevocably linked. Commitment must be declared––proclaimed emphatically and publicly––to be real. When you witness another person truly committing or you commit yourself, you feel it. The act moves and changes you. A declared commitment sends an unmistakable message to its recipient: “I want you to hear what I’ve committed to. Remember it. Hold me to it.”
So the next time you are making a commitment, stand up. Look your recipient(s) in the eyes. Declare, “You can count on me to follow through. Please hold me to this.”
You commit because it forces you to act and then stick with it, even when moving forward becomes difficult.
I think of commitment as a tool to use when I want to intentionally put myself in a situation where I have no choice but to act and follow through. For example, nine months ago, I made a declaration to family and friends: “I will change my lifestyle so that within a year, I will lose 60 pounds. I will keep the weight off for another year.”
As of the writing of this post, I have lost 45 pounds and am on track to keep my commitment. I have another year and three months to go, and it is my commitment that will keep me in the game. Without it, I probably would have given up months ago.
Finally, you commit to truly live. What is the point of your journey? What would your life be without any causes, dreams, or goals? Such aimlessness would be a waste of the ultimate gift: the time we have.
Over the next week, I encourage you to ponder these three questions:
- To whom and to what am I committed?
- Have I declared these commitments and asked the recipient(s) of them to hold me to them and partner with me in realizing them?
- If I have not declared these commitments, when and where will I do so?
I promise these prompts and corresponding actions will improve your effectiveness, compound the difference you’re making in other’s lives and in the world, and heighten the satisfaction you earn from your own life.