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Accountability: the Forgotten Competency

One of the crucial capacities for a great leader is accountability. It is essential for producing results in our businesses, community organizations, schools, politics, and families. Despite its importance, it is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied leadership competencies in our society today.

In not holding others accountable we enable them to avoid personal responsibility, make excuses, rationalize, and at best, be mediocre. We do not help them in this process but instead hinder their personal development. As our standard of excellence declines, so does our overall performance and results in all facets of our society.

How did we get here? I believe a big contributor is our attempt to create a “feel good” society that prioritizes self-esteem above all else. Harmony and an absence of conflict are prized over healthy conflict of ideas. The irony is we are hurting the very people we intend to help. The reason for this is that this kind of self-esteem is illusory and fragile. It withers in the face of real-world hardship. When you remove high expectations and accountability, there is nothing left but a façade waiting to be knocked down by reality.

A lack of accountability is a big problem, and it is the responsibility of a leader to instill it as a norm in the organizations which they lead. How do we define accountability? Accountability at its root means being subject to give an account of something. It consists of five actionable parts:

  • Modeling expected behavior and holding ourselves accountable.

  • Communicating HIGH and CLEAR expectations.

  • Providing resources and coaching for success.

  • Gaining individual commitments to these expectations.

  • Holding others accountable for their commitments.

All five parts are crucial and interconnected. It begins with modeling the behavior we desire in others and holding ourselves accountable. If we are not keeping our own commitments, then it is hypocritical and duplicitous to ask others to keep theirs.

Second, we must communicate high expectations in a clear, non-fuzzy manner. This is crucial because people will tend to rise or sink to our expectations, whether those expectations are high or low. Expectations should be clear and include who, what, when, why, where, and how. If there is not agreement on these questions, then accountability is difficult, if not impossible.

Finally, do not accept excuses or rationalization for non-performance. No one is perfect and failures are inevitable. When failure happens coach them through it. The intent of accountability is not to punish those who miss the mark but rather to create opportunities to learn and grow. Ask, “What would you have done differently to have achieved different outcomes?” Invite them to accept responsibility for the problem and solution rather than jumping in to save them by providing your solutions.

Leadership is about providing vision and influencing others to help accomplish this vision. Accountability when combined with coaching ultimately builds a confident team. Win or lose the team gets stronger. They either accomplish the goal and learn they are capable of more than they realized, or they fall flat on their face and learn how to improve for next time. Either way the team grows. This is the source of self-confidence.

Additional reading:


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