Commitment is a universal element in life. While just speaking the word commitment can elicit confusion and angst, there’s no question about its importance in our lives. Everything from monthly bills to education, marriage, work, and goals depends on some level of commitment.

The challenge becomes distinguishing, cultivating, and deepening commitment, especially in times of volatile change and uncertainty.

With this post, I will examine a fuller understanding of commitment: first, to offer different views of commitment, then to explore it as a context with fundamental conditions, and finally, to address some of the challenges in cultivating a life-giving commitment.

Different Views

The research on commitment includes at least three broader views: psychological, philosophical, and Buddhist.

Psychological View

John Meyer and Natalie Allen published a three-component model of commitment in Human Resource Management Review (1991). The model distinguishes commitment as a psychological perspective toward an organization, with three components that affect how employees feel about the organization:

— Affection for job (affective commitment). Here, you feel a strong emotional attachment to your organization and to the work that you do. You may identify with the organization’s goals and values and want to be there.

— Fear of loss (continuance commitment). This type of commitment is achieved through a cost-benefit analysis; you weigh the pros and cons of leaving your organization. You may feel the need to stay at your job because the loss you’d experience by leaving it would be greater than the benefit you might gain in a new role.

— Sense of obligation (normative commitment). Here, commitment feels like an obligation: you are duty-bound to your organization, even if you’re unhappy in your role. You feel that you should stay with your organization because it’s the right thing to do.

Each option in this model offers a normative view, depending on some evaluative and external assessment as good, or better. Even so, each case seems insufficient to generate a commitment from within yourself to bring to work.

Philosophical View

A philosophical inquiry questions the relationship between freedom and commitment. Business philosopher Peter Koestenbaum highlights the importance of this inquiry:

“One of the gravest problems in life is self-limitation: We create defense mechanisms to protect us from the anxiety that comes with freedom. We refuse to fulfill our potential. We live only marginally.”

We become less because we are unwilling to commit to our fullest potential. In his classic, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge dissects different views of commitment that reveal who we are regarding our potential.

  • Compliant. Here, we conform to others’ expectations. The attitude is “we do this because it’s our job.” As long as we finish the task, we are satisfied, even though more opportunity exists. We see no incentive to go the extra mile, which often entails creating more work.

Signs of compliance:

        1. Objectives are only completed at minimum standards.

        2. Meetings are attended but with limited participation.

        3. Input is acknowledged but nothing happens.

  • Enrolled. Here, we express ourselves, aligned with an organization’s purpose and the “spirit” of a vision or future. We see value in our participation and recognize our valuable contributions based on our experience, insight, and intuition.

Signs of enrollment:

1. People approach you instead of you looking for them. They proactively sign up for positions or tasks, and ask: “How can I help?”

2. They actively contribute in meetings, ask questions, and interject opinions.

  • Committed. Here, we do whatever it takes, becoming willing to make personal trade-offs and taking responsibility for co-creating reality. We put ourselves on the line in order to reach key objectives and goals to bring about a vision or future.

Signs of commitment:

1. Show up to meetings and events fully and prepared to contribute or seek out contributions from others.

2. Challenging assumptions and opinions based on expertise and skill sets.

3. Willing to break the rules after they have been learned.

Buddhist View

When we venture East, deep commitment becomes akin to a vow or a willingness to surrender to something larger than yourself. Commitment emerges from a compelling future that binds and guides us:

  • It can ground us and provide a sense of purpose.
  • It can provide direction in life.
  • It can give us something to serve.
  • It can help us evolve emotionally and in wisdom.
  • It can provide a context for making decisions.
  • It can prevent us from acting on unhealthy impulses.
  • It can unify the mind.

From this view, making a commitment doesn’t necessarily mean that you will reap the desired result. The outcome of any commitment can involve conditions beyond your control. Therefore, you aren’t committing to a certain result—you are committing to a way of life, to showing up as your best effort. The reward comes from acting on your commitment.

Elements of Commitment as Context

We can begin to see commitment as more than a goal I achieve or a value I embrace to achieve goals: it is a context for viewing life that enlivens and animates me. Commitment as a context involves three fundamental conditions: choice, word, and stand. Each of these exists at three levels of awareness: life either happens to me, by me, or through me.

  • Choice: Intention from a level of consciousness. My relationship to “choice” is based on my level of consciousness.

1. Life happens to me. I am at the effect of life. Choosing occurs as reacting, mostly unconsciously (Senge’s “compliant” view).

2. Life happens by me. I make things happen. Choosing occurs as responding, proactively (Senge’s “enrolled” view).

3. Life happens through me. I am in a dance with life, surrendering to its flow. Choosing occurs as continual discovery and intentional choosing through what is happening, what is disclosed, and what is wanting to happen (Senge’s “committed” view).

  • Word: Responsibility from level of ownership to co-create. My “word” pertains to the strength of the promises and agreements I make or the understanding I create. It reveals the relationship to my word or how it exists for me.

1. Life happens to me. I use my word to describe circumstances. This occurs as describing what I want without taking the necessary action to move forward.

2. Life happens by me. I am proactive with my word to make things happen and accept responsibility for results.

3. Life happens through me. In a dance with life, my word is generative. I use my word to co-create reality. I accept responsibility for what I co-create: results and the unexpected impact of those results.

  • Stand: Resolve to act from an awareness of what’s at stake. This is where commitment meets choice, word, and action. I engage action as a conscious choice.

1. Life happens to me. I am obliged to act on my word, depending on the circumstances.

2. Life happens by me. I am empowered to create results regardless of situations or setbacks.

3. Life happens through me. I resolve to stand for something bigger than myself and engage in the necessary trade-offs to co-create the results with others.

Absent commitment as a context for life, we are at the effect of circumstance. We react to the drift of life, unaware of our role as co-creators in its unfolding. To honor commitment requires choosing consciously, owning my word as my world, and taking a stand from what’s at stake as I engage life.

Challenge of Commitment: Choosing and Action

The freedom of commitment lives in its possibility: to take a stand and act on a future possibility and to stick with it to create results.

Commitment and Choosing

Commitment opens a future while foreclosing others to offer direction. Commitment as context is a stand. There is no evidence for it; it is a view we bring to life, a possibility we embody through a declaration we speak. Such a stand requires choosing intentionally, owning our word, and resolving to be moved by what’s at stake.

We are willing to engage in trade-offs—between what’s comfortable and what’s possible or between past beliefs and future possibilities.

Beyond those moments when you say “yes,” commitment also involves, more often, those times when you say “no” (often, more importantly).

What matters in a commitment is choice: the continual choosing that constitutes yourself as a possibility and establishes a direction. Even the commitment to arrive early to a meeting constitutes me as willing to participate and contribute as opposed to someone attending a meeting because it’s on their calendar.

Commitment in Action

This is where commitment tests our courage to choose, declare, and act. Here, we generate rather than perform our commitment. Generating a commitment begins, first, by embodying a visual experience in language.

For example, let’s say my commitment is to bring wisdom to learning. These words come from a background of experience that moves me, and from an understanding of what’s at stake, which I am willing to give voice to.

With the meaning of these words, and the experience, I will 1) generate a possibility in language, 2) embrace its truth, and then 3) show up as that commitment.

  1. Generate possibility. I view the commitment to bring wisdom to learning as a possibility. I can now visualize a world that honors learning for its own sake. I can see different learning environments, different conversations, the joy of discovery and practice that leads to wisdom, and the imagination that enlivens questions and wonder.
  2. Embrace truth. Now, I honor truth—not merely seeking the “truth,” but as Peter Senge states:

“a relentless willingness to uncover the ways we limit and deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge the ways things are. It means broadening our awareness and understanding the structures that underlie and generate events.”

Here, I am willing to examine and own what my commitment opens and the deeper truths it reveals.

  1. Show up as commitment. Soon, I awaken to commitment as context: to the possibility of wisdom and learning in all aspects of life. I am drawn to philosophy, different cultures, Eastern practices, and even wisdom in previously entertaining films like The Matrix or Star Wars. I notice wisdom in the design of things—art, food, furniture, living systems—and marvel at the child-like wonder in deeper learning that opens rather than closes questions. 

To generate a commitment is to understand and acknowledge why we show up, how we show up, and what to do or say when we show up. I am now available to act from my commitment. 

Challenge of Commitment: Courage to Face Our True Potential

What is the commitment that moves you? Are you willing to stand for it? For legendary actress Carol Channing, of “Hello Dolly” fame, it was “to lift up people’s lives.” What a life she created from that commitment.

Generating any commitment requires courage — whether it’s to wellness, gardening, music, writing, teaching, parenting, artistry, listening or leading, or tasks such as attending a meeting.

Commitment and Courage

Courage will be required to face this paradox: As you realize your commitment and bring it into being, you will simultaneously realize greater doubt, disbelief, and uncertainty.

In fact, this doubt and disbelief arise from having realized or expanded your commitment. It is, in an odd way, a sign of progress.

This is an unusual statement, to be sure. But realizing a commitment is not a linear process; our past and future arise together, now, in the moment of choice. The very leap into the unknown of a future possibility also seeds the very doubts that generate uncertainty.

Our potential (which means future power) reveals our past assumptions and views and challenges our beliefs of unworthiness in our current reality. This is where taking a stand becomes a valuable practice.

Courage requires facing our true potential, as stated by Koestenbaum:

“We limit how we live so that we can limit the amount of anxiety that we experience. We end up tranquilizing many of life’s functions. We shut down the centers of entrepreneurial and creative thinking; in effect, we halt progress and growth. But no significant decision—personal or organizational—has ever been undertaken without being attended by an existential crisis, or without a commitment to wade through anxiety, uncertainty, and guilt.”

Creative Tension

The illustration below reveals a pull in direction. Commitment calls us in our current reality toward our vision (future). Simultaneously, it reveals hidden assumptions from our past. We become hooked on and tethered to those past structures; thrown to past beliefs or identities — doubts, unworthiness, uncertainty — as we realize that we cannot do everything we’ve chosen.

This is the power and challenge of commitment: it reveals our assumptions, offering us an opportunity to challenge our belief structures and convictions. The past that rears its head is simply a reminder of outmoded assumptions and views against a future possibility.

  1. Now we can choose and continue choosing. I choose my context for engaging life: will I endorse my past beliefs and assumptions, or will I author a future by acting courageously, challenge those assumptions, and live from my commitment as context?
  2. Then we expand responsibility of our word to co-create, both in the way we speak to ourselves and the way we declare to others.
  3. Then we take a stand for the dignity of our potential. We generate the context and possibility for something bigger than ourselves: a compelling future (vision) that generates action by tapping into a fundamental concern.

Practice of Commitment

When we are moved by something bigger than ourselves, living our commitment as the context for our life is a moment-to-moment existence.

  • We are not entitled to a commitment.
  • We’ve not earned it or studied for it, nor can it be discovered.
  • It is a context to create; possibility to embody; a generative act to speak; and, a practice to live.

When practiced, we are living at choice. Things may happen to me, but once I pause, I can generate my personal commitment: I wish to bring wisdom to learning. Let me see what this moment offers. That commitment leads to each subsequent commitment. We become co-creators, designing a life from our potential that transcends past beliefs.

The book, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, a new paradigm for sustainable success focuses correctly on the commitments for leadership, or in this case, 15 conscious commitments. Since Peter Senge’s work emerged, I found this a refreshing outlook reaffirming his work on the level of commitment required to assume leadership. The authors define commitment as follows:

“For us, commitment is a statement of ‘what is.’ From our perspective, you can know your commitments by your results, not by what you say your commitments are. We are all committed. We are all producing results. Conscious leaders own their commitments by owning their results.”

I like this statement. It is important to venture beyond talking about our commitment and taking action to co-create results. People can get mired in expressing their commitment to look or sound good, and fail to manifest any results. I would expand this statement to suggest that our intentions, actions, and results arise together in the moment of choice. Perhaps like this:

Commitment is a context for “what is and can be.” You can know your commitments by the intentions revealed through your actions and results. Ultimately, results speak loudest when congruent with your expressed intentions. Conscious leaders embody their commitments by owning their intentions, actions, and results.

This blog post is a complement to the following blog post: Commitment: Leadership Intelligence, pt. 4

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.