Leadership Accountability: What is it?

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Leadership AccountabilityAccording to Michael Hyatt, a New York Times best-selling author: “[accountability] means that you accept responsibility for the outcomes expected of you—both good and bad.  You don’t blame others. And you don’t blame the external environment. Until you take responsibility, you are a victim. And being a victim is the exact opposite of being a leader. Victims are passive. They are acted upon. Leaders are active. They take the initiative to influence the outcome.”

But: we need a definition of exactly what accountability means: does it mean “off with your head” or learn and improve?” How does accountability line up with viewing failure? Should it be an automatic, defined action or should it be looked at as a learning opportunity, not a chance for blame? Do drastic actionable penalties for failure actually discourage leadership  from taking risky solutions or does it attract the real bold leaders in a Darwinian way? On deeper analysis of a Darwinian approach to accountability, there can be some serious costs in turnover of highly paid leaders as well as a real downer for morale when the guillotine comes crashing down. In addition, being wrong has real tangible costs and opportunity costs.

A more gentle way to apply accountability is to adopt a concept of the “continuous improvement process.” Rather than a hard-line sink-or-swim approach, a kinder, more intelligent way is to accept a model that proclaims “failure” is just a learning opportunity.” However, does that idea really encourage real accountability? Remember the “pass-fail” grading system?

The continuous learning process has its pros and cons. However, it to down to the old argument: is fear a better motivator than “try your best and have no fear of failure. Indeed, you can take another shot at it even if you do fail?”

What is failure?

How do we analytically look at failure — when we suspend the emotional connotations of feelings of anger, frustration, blame or regret?

Why did you fail? What might have produced a better outcome? Was the failure completely beyond your control? After gathering the facts, step back and ask yourself, “what did I learn from this?” Think about how you will apply this newfound insight going forward.” It’s a forgiving approach, but where is the accountability?

The following are some ideas on how to re-define the concept of accountability.

  1. Define and clarify the roles, goals, and expectations of each leader

When it comes time to define and clarify the roles of each member of the leadership team, it sounds good to say we need to “work as an entire team to avoid the risk of confusion or disagreement.” But how do we actually do that?

Clarifying roles ensures that not everyone is responsible for every facet of the company. For example, if one member of the leadership team is able to communicate effectively with the greater team, he or she may flourish in a role that is responsible for managing others. But if they fail in that capacity, what happens? And if another member of the leadership team works best strategically, he or she may be a better fit for a role that focuses on to operational efficiency. Again, where is the accountability for failure?

That answer depends on how each team leader views the importance of success in their role. Do they see the task as a challenge to be met or do they see it as just an attempt to do the best they can? Too many management theories fail to stress the importance of evaluating the psychology and values of each person. A good method to avoid a mediocre response to a challenge is to ask each person how capable they think they are to take on the challenge. Have them identify why they feel capable or not. There should be no accountability for being honest. However, it allows each person to self-evaluate why they feel capable or not. If not, they should see that as the opportunity to improve. Leadership requires constant, honest self-evaluation and a desire to improve. Over-time, the team will learn much about who can be held accountable.

  1. Lead by example to motivate employees to achieve goals

Leadership becomes pretty self-apparent as confident leaders are not afraid to take on a leadership role. Indeed, good leaders are not about making themselves look good but have more focus on helping others look good. An excellent indicator of a good leader is when a subordinate makes a mistake and the leader first questions if they had presented the task in an appropriate way. Their first instinct is to look at themselves rather put blame on others. This is a person who knows how to feel accountable for more than their own actions.

  1. Set milestones

One of the best ways to ensure that accountability is shared across the board is to set milestones not just for the team but for each team member. This way, your entire organization will feel more inclined to stay focused and accept their success or failure within the context of the team goal. During work-in-progress team meetings, identify who may be falling behind and try to assign some additional help for that person.

  1. Provide constructive feedback

Good leaders understand that developing a team makes them look good as well as help others contribute and grow. If the team fails, a true leader will not cast blame or make excuses. Rather, they will look first toward themselves for any blame.


Accountability has lost its bite over the past few decades as political correctness has enabled pushback against the more drastic consequences of not meeting expectations. However, at the same time, educators and psychologists have proven that a more cordial approach to accountability is usually more successful in attaining goals. That said, creating accountability is more a matter of identifying the right people who hold themselves accountable. In addition, before assigning an important task, there should be a clear definition of what it means to be successful (not a failure) and a clear definition of what failure would mean to the individual. Then, let them decide if they want to take the risk….and the reward for success.


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