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Leadership Accountability

Leadership Accountability

Have you ever experienced any of the following when dealing with a particular leader in your organization?

  • You send them an email asking for a response or a decision but you never hear from them
  • He or she is regularly late for meetings (or doesn’t show up at all)
  • He or she constantly delays on projects or procrastinates on deliverables
  • He or she regularly makes excuses for inaction
  • He or she is nowhere to be seen when problems in his or her area arise or conflict occurs
  • He or she often blames or criticizes a subordinate or colleague rather than takes responsibility for the situation personally

All of the above, and many behaviors similar to this, are examples of poor accountability on the part of a leader and can cause huge damage to individual and team morale when they occur.

When things go well, CEO’s and other senior leaders are often very happy to take the credit. But when unexpected or even negative results arise, many of the same people run for cover and find ways to avoid responsibility or even apportion blame elsewhere. Such behavior involves a lack of leadership accountability and in this article we will explore why this occurs and what we can do about it.

Of course, “accountability” means more than merely being willing to take responsibility or even the blame when things don’t go as well as expected; it means really “owning” the situation at hand and all of the outcomes, whether they are good or bad – as US President Harry Truman said so memorably when he took on his role – it means letting people know that “the buck stops here” or that people can rely on the leader to stay engaged and responsible whatever happens.

So, at least initially, let’s further unpack this term “accountability” and look a little more closely at what’s involved.

Before anything else accountability means that the leader in question accepts full responsibility for the future consequences of his or her actions, whatever these might be. Simply put then, until this leader takes this full responsibility, he or she believes him or herself to be a victim of circumstance and in so doing is operating more as a follower than a leader. This is an unsustainable position for any leader in the long term because it signals to others that the leader may not stay engaged and responsible when obstacles are encountered, or even worse they try to distance him or herself.

Related to being fully responsible for your decisions and actions, accountability also involves being both clear and open about what needs to be done, giving people the proper training, coaching, resources and support to achieve the goals or targets set, and then properly monitoring or measuring the results in an honest and straightforward way to see how we really did, without any gloss. In other words there should be no hiding from the results, even when they are bad. In summary then, the chart below aims to distinguish many of the behaviors that are often exhibited most on both sides here:

Accountable leaders are: Unaccountable leaders are:
  • Clear in their language
  • Responsible
  • Committed
  • Persistent
  • Ethical
  • Good at keeping promises
  • Accept criticism willingly
  • Good at thinking about decision consequences
  • Respectful of others
  • Courageous
  • Often confusing in their language
  • “Flighty”
  • More self-centered
  • Likely to blame others for problems
  • Impulsive
  • Often avoidant
  • Sensitive to criticism
  • Often risk averse
  • Ride “roughshod” over others
  • Vague or even weak at times

Most leaders have little disagreement at the conceptual level with what is being called for here in terms of being more accountable, but agreeing in theory is quite different to adopting this approach in practice. In day-to-day leadership decisions are often relatively easy to make (and often impulsively without much thought of the consequences) but as events subsequently unfold, increasing nervousness, timidity, risk aversion, and other defensive behaviors can combine to make a given leader regret his or her decision and look for ways to protect him or herself. Team members are quick to see this behavior when it occurs and trust can be quickly lost. 

Developing greater Accountability

There is no set formula for developing greater accountability (every situation will be different) but the following six steps are important parts of the overall mix: 

1. Taking personal responsibility as much as possible

Although it is impossible for any leader to be fully in control of all situations (the wider environment and other people inevitably play their part in most cases) they can take personal responsibility to lead as a conscious mind-set and elect to believe that a high proportion of the leader’s relative success depends on him or her rather than external factors and conditions. In practical terms, we are therefore more likely to see these kind of leaders using “I” statements to take responsibility. For example, he or she might say: “I did not allocate enough time to this project and need to make changes in the way I plan tasks like this in the future”. In addition, when credit is due, these same personally responsible leaders are more likely to be altruistic and use inclusive “we” language to recognize others’ contributions, or at least share the success story. 

2. Admitting quickly to shortcomings

Leaders gain significant personal credit and make real progress when they admit to their shortcomings. As a result, leaders wanting to be more accountable should ideally:

  • Acknowledge their errors and mistakes by quickly recognizing that things didn’t go according to plan and they are as much involved (or to blame) as anyone,
  • Talk about any lessons learned by disclosing the part they played and asking what they could do differently in the future as a result, and
  • Ask others involved for their responsible commitment to work together to avoid similar situations in the future, including coming to the leader when it is felt he/she is not doing enough. 

3. Taking the time to really listen to others

Leaders are well served to really listen to a request when presented to them. Too many of us simply tune-out and acquiesce to a request because we are willing to please, trying to be helpful, or in some cases because we just feel overwhelmed or tired. But whatever the circumstances, we should never say “yes” to someone only to fade-away and disappoint them later (i.e. fail to be accountable through inaction). In the long-term respect is earned when you take the time to opt out of a request, or say “no” or “not now” rather than fail to follow through later.

4. Being more open/disclosing

When leaders are open with their goals, targets and plans they are more likely to adhere to them. The more that a leader publicly commits to a forward plan or course of action, the more likely that course of action is responsibly pursued without looking for excuses or “escape hatches”.

5. Being consistent with the leader’s personal values

Value consistency helps leaders to act in ways that are consistent with their words. Leaders should therefore concentrate first and foremost on how their decisions will impact others, then think carefully about what behaviors and espoused values will support what they are asking to be done. Leaders who change their personal values frequently or act in ways that is not consistent with their character or the words that they use, will create confusion in their followers. 

6. Holding others accountable

Leaders can help to lift overall levels of accountability by setting clear objectives, agreeing on how targets are to be tracked and monitored, talking about potential outcomes and consequences and providing lots of ongoing feedback and follow up in all directions.

In the final analysis it should be noted that no organization can truly prosper until the leaders are willing to step up and take responsibility and be accountable on a consistent basis.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

View all posts by Dr. Jon Warner →

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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