Accountability, leadership and transformation are inexorably linked. Accountability is an acute and overt manifestation of leadership. Leadership involves accepting and acting on the accountabilities of the position. Transformation will not occur without leadership. One of the first aspects of a business that needs to be transformed is accountability. Among the strongest evidence that a business is transforming is that the executives, managers and employees have a new relationship to accountability, and this new relationship to accountability is manifested in the performance of the business, relationships with stakeholders, and service provided to customers.
What is Accountability
The word ‘accountable’ stems from late Latin accomptare (to account), a prefixed form of computare (to calculate), which in turn derived from putare (to reckon). The concept of account-giving has ancient roots in record keeping activities related to governance and money-lending systems that first developed in Ancient Israel, Babylon, Egypt, Greece and later, Rome. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the word accountable as:
1. Liable to be called to account, or to answer for the responsibilities and conduct: answerable and responsible. Chiefly of persons.
2. To be counted on or reckoned on.
3. Able to be reckoned or computed.
4. To be reckoned or charged, chargeable, attributable to.
5. Able to be accounted for or explained, explicable.
The term ‘accountability’ means “The quality of being accountable; liability to give an account of, and answer for, discharge of duties or conduct; responsible, amenableness.” I want to highlight the quality of being accountable since it provides a valuable insight into how leadership accountability is developed. Development begins with commitments which shape the person’s being. That is, if one wants to develop leadership accountability one begins with a strong commitment to being accountable. This commitment in turn shapes the context for the leader so that opportunities to develop occur clearly and with opportunities for action. Developing leadership accountability happens when the person acts on commitments to be accountable.
In business we say that leader accountability is acknowledgment and acceptance of responsibilities and results of the position. To expand this, we further say that accountability is:
1. Willing acceptance of the responsibilities inherent in the leadership position with a commitment to serve the well-being of the organization;
2. Expectation that the leader will be publicly linked to actions, behavior, communication, outcomes, performance, and value achieved;
Leadership accountability is the acceptance and fulfillment by managers of their critical role in the overall success of the organization. This term encompasses the achievement of personal and departmental results as well as contribution to reaching the company’s broader goals and vision. Accountability involves setting expectations, clearly communicating these expectations and then holding yourself and everyone within your sphere of influence responsible for consistently meeting the established expectations. Accountability is a process, with a beginning and an end. Accountability is not about blame, making excuses and scapegoating. It is not about telling people what you expect them to do, then quickly moving on to the next thing.
The Importance of Self-Examination
Self-examination is excellent means of developing leadership accountability. The person is committed to being accountable and based on that commitment sees to opportunities for action. Self-examination allows the person to assess effectiveness of her/his actions. A key question is “were my actions consistent with my commitment to be accountable as a leader?” Self examination will often reveal areas for improvement. This is particularly important with the circumstances in which the action occurred were complicated. Developing accountability as a leader is a long process of trial and error.
Accountability is personal, so self-examination is crucial. Self-examination occurs through looking in the mirror and asking questions such as:
- When have your words about accountability been stronger than your actions?
- Where have you allowed things to exist that you now know was a mistake?
- Have you allowed people around you to misbehave, use company resources inappropriately, foster ineffectiveness, and ultimately destroy value? If so, who and why?
- Have you allowed people around you to behave in a way that invalidates what you say you believe and stand for?
- Have you allowed others not to be accountable because you wanted to avoid a conflict, or you were benefiting in some way from the continued existence of this situation?
These are tough questions. Yet candid inquiry into one’s own accountability is essential. My advice to leaders is that accountability begins with you and will develop based on your willingness to accept your own mistakes. This acceptance allows the leader to be bigger than the circumstances and to talk about openly the consequence of prior actions. Accountability begins in the leader’s chair. If the leader is candid and honest about themself, then there is an opening for establishing empowering accountability in the organization.
Unfortunately there are many in executive and senior management positions who have not developed their leadership accountability. This lack of developing leadership accountability is best demonstrated when employees experience “holding others to account” as a version of “do what I say, not what I do”.
This is perceived by employees as inherently hypocritical since the one who is “holding” does not actually act in an accountable manner, nor hold themself to account.
Accountability works when employees experience it as empowering and as an expression of joint commitment to success. Accountability is not empowering when it is experienced as punitive. As example, it is common to hear a negative tone when managers use the term “holds others to account”. This punitive tone replaces the power which can be created in a candid conversation for accountability.
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