The Balance of Responsibility: Leadership Lessons from Charles Osgood


Earlier this year a friend, Milton Irving, from the Timothy Smith Network, quoted a poem by Charles Osgood while discussing leadership at a Tufts-Laidlaw event. Sunday mornings of my childhood had a special charm, thanks in part to Charles Osgood's baritone voice emanating from the television. His segments on CBS News Sunday Morning not only highlighted the pressing issues of the world but also showcased the people actively working to solve them. Osgood's storytelling had a way of making complex issues relatable, a skill that also shines through in his poem about four people: Somebody, Anybody, Everybody, and Nobody.

Team of Four People

The Condensed Version:

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.

Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.

Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody's job.

Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't do it.

It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

One person sitting on a question mark.

What I appreciate most about his poem is its dual message. It humorously depicts the chaos that ensues when everyone assumes that 'somebody' else will handle a task. At the same time, it underscores the necessity for someone to take the lead in solving problems, illustrating how a group can collectively 'drop the ball' without good communication. While the poem serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of individual responsibility and accountability, taken to extremes, it becomes a call to action for everyone to chase every 'ball,' much like kids learning soccer/football, without regard to our own limits.

Balancing personal time and energy with community or organizational responsibilities is a complex task. Effective leadership involves prioritizing tasks, delegating responsibilities, and setting healthy boundaries. This ensures not only the efficient completion of tasks but also meaningful contributions and the well-being of you, your team, and the community.

Team of four working together

More importantly, in communities to which we are not members, the concept of collective responsibility takes on added significance. Stepping in to 'fix' a problem we see may not align with that community’s priorities. Different groups also have varying views on individual vs. collective responsibilities. Open dialogues and community meetings can serve as platforms for members to discuss their expectations and limitations, fostering a collective understanding of responsibility and if the issue at hand is even something on which to spend time.

For me, poem about Somebody, Anybody, Everyone, and Nobody serves as a valuable lesson in the importance of individual responsibility and the complexities of community involvement. While navigating future challenges, the lessons from this poem and the voice that introduced me to many of the world's complexities serve as guiding lights for responsible and impactful engagement. If you find it likewise useful, please make sure to share it with Somebody, Anybody, Everyone, and (not) Nobody.

Team of Four with Job Done!

 The extended edition of the poem:

There was a most important job that needed to be done,

And no reason not to do it, there was absolutely none.

But in vital matters such as this, the thing you have to ask

Is who exactly will it be who'll carry out the task?


Anybody could have told you that Everybody knew

That this was something Somebody would surely have to do.

Nobody was unwilling; Anybody had the ability.

But Nobody believed that it was their responsibility.


It seemed to be a job that Anybody could have done,

If Anybody thought he was supposed to be the one.

But since Everybody recognized that Anybody could,

Everybody took for granted that Somebody would.


But Nobody told Anybody that we are aware of,

That he would be in charge of seeing it was taken care of.

And Nobody took it on himself to follow through,

And do what Everybody thought that Somebody would do.


When what Everybody needed so did not get done at all,

Everybody was complaining that Somebody dropped the ball.

Anybody then could see it was an awful crying shame,

And Everybody looked around for Somebody to blame.


Somebody should have done the job

And Everybody should have,

But in the end Nobody did

What Anybody could have.

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Go to the profile of Princess Agina
6 months ago

Andrew, thank you for sharing this insightful reflection on Charles Osgood's poem--It brilliantly underscores the nuances of leadership, collective responsibility, and the pitfalls of assumption and serves as a reminder that inaction can often stem from mere miscommunication or misplaced expectations. I also appreciate your take on balancing personal responsibilities with community involvement – a delicate equilibrium that every leader, in any capacity, strives to achieve. It's a lesson many of us need to hear, digest, and apply in our professional and personal spheres!

Thank you and glad to share! I love your phrase "the pitfalls of assumption" to highlight the issues around perceptions and communication when facing a difficult task.

Additionally, while the poem points to one source of inaction, it is always good to keep aware of the others. Resource constraints, sunk cost fallacy, perceived bureaucratic hurdles, fear of failure or feeling overwhelmed can paralyze the decision-making process. Being prepared to not only face internally these solution-stalling-states of mind and being able to help our teams/communities overcome them is no small leadership challenge. Put another way, we should always be ready to answer the "But what can I do?" question with realistic and impactful actions when seeking to make change in the world around us.