Leading in a complex world requires continued development of leadership attributes and tools.
An excellent example of this is when accountability is created in the context of leadership, rather than management. Leaders use accountability to empower, while managers use it to control. This is entirely consistent with the differences in management and leadership.
In many organizations creating leadership accountability this is easier said than done, since there is such strong presence of management orientation and little leadership orientation. John Kotter once wrote, “Most U.S. corporations today are overmanaged and underled”. In companies which are ‘overmanaged’, accountability will be designed to produce consistency, control and order. In contrast, accountability in leadership context is designed to align, communicate, engage, motivate and inspire.
Leadership accountability is a primary tool of executives to successfully achieve strategic growth. Executing growth strategies involves implementing substantial change, which in turn requires leadership. While leadership accountability provides a powerful leverage for growth, it can lose its power if the executives and senior managers fall into common organizational traps. These traps can in ensnarl even the most committed, experienced and intelligent executive.
Blame and Excuses
Blame is not useful in leadership accountability as it shuts down openness and transparency. Blame involves accusing another of being the cause for failure. In business it is often used to avoid or duck accountability. In many companies ‘The Blame Game’ dominates much executive energy and time. The effort is spent in documenting and explaining so that when another attempts to blame, there will be ample justification to assert innocence. Too often executives in business view other executives as the enemy and spend so much time posturing against other executives that there is little time to be concerned with customers, competitors, and shareholders.
In his book, The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability, author Roger Connors found that a thin line separates success from failure and the great companies from the ordinary ones:
“Below that line lies excuse making, blaming others, confusion, and an attitude of helplessness, while above that line lies a sense of reality, ownership, commitment, solutions to problems, and determined action.”
The term scapegoat is commonly used in organizations, but most people do not know of its origin. It comes from the Old Testament in the Bible. Leviticus 16 describes how the Jewish chief priest symbolically laid sins of the people on the goat, which was in turn was driven out into the wilderness to meet its certain demise.
The scapegoat has been applied in social systems, as well. It denotes the practice of placing all the blame for the organizations troubles on an individual as a means of reducing the stress on that system. The problems are blamed on another and thereby the guilt and responsibility is transferred. Scapegoating is common in organizations, especially when the organization is in midst of change and/or not functioning well.
I often use the prevalence of scapegoating in an organization as an indication of organizational health. One can determine this as well by simply asking a few questions. A classic place to start is with the functional groups which could be causing stress, such as “Tell me about HR?”.
Executives who are executing growth strategies must studiously avoid blame and scapegoating, as well as not allowing others to do so. Empowering accountability will not flourish in environment of blame and scapegoating.
Leads to Avoidance of Accountability and “Becoming Victims”
You probably have heard the old joke about the teacher who asked a young student why his math homework wasn’t turned in, to which the young student replied, “Well, you see I did my homework but then the dog ate it”. While we joke about such ludicrous excuses, think about this the next time you are in a budget meeting or operational review. Look to see how often you hear the adult version of “the dog ate my homework”.
We in the U.S. have taken excuse making to an art form. Conner’s says that Americans lead the world in what is termed the “cult of victimization”. The quote is from an article in The Economist that describes this as “an odd combination of ducking responsibility and telling everyone else what to do”. Certainly this tendency is alive and well in U.S. businesses.
Excuse making is one small step up from denial. In denial, the person says “it never happened”. In excuse making, the person says “It did happen but it is not my fault because of these extenuating circumstances”. Excuses are a story that a person makes up about the circumstances surrounding the events and results that serve to absolve the person of any accountability for what happened.
Excuses cloud the conversations and thinking, so little progress can be made toward producing the desired results. Further, excuses begin as little stories, but lay the foundation for much more debilitating organizational dynamics. These dynamics are becoming victims and building campaigns against other departments, functions and organizational units in the business.
Until an individual and organization takes accountability for the outcomes and does not cover it with an excuse or story, that individual and organization will be a victim. Victims are the opposite of being accountable. Victims are passive and not at fault. Individuals who are victims are not accountable and will not be effective as leaders. Becoming a victim precludes individuals, groups and organizational entities from owning their own involvement and contribution to what happened.
Avoiding These Traps
How can we avoid these traps? Being alert is the first step, of course. Beyond that I encourage you to talk openly with the other executives and managers who will be leading the growth strategies. Staying alert as a group is your best defense. Speaking immediately to one another if you see even a hint of one of the traps coming into play. Chances are others will see the trap waiting for you before you do.
Who could you talk today to begin collaboration on avoiding traps to your establishing empowering accountability and leadership?
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