Leadership and Unconditional Accountability

Worried manager

Worried managerWhen most individuals envision what it would look like to assume a leadership role, they imagine the freedom to define a strategy that will garner success, the authority to make decisions, and the opportunity to develop and mentor others. Those are the exciting aspects of leadership that are often appealing to individual contributors. But the other side of that coin is the incredible responsibility that comes along with the title. You can’t have one without the other. But the issue of responsibility and accountability goes even further.

Naturally, leaders are held responsible for the strategic direction they take and tactical decisions they make along the way.

  • They’re responsible for meeting goals, deadlines, and deliverables while staying under budget.
  • They’re responsible for the team’s successes and failures. By human nature, it’s already tough to take personal responsibility for failures, but one of the toughest moments a leader will face is when they have to take accountability for the failure of others.

It seems that on a weekly basis, we see a news story or viral video documenting awful choices by an individual employee that makes headlines. However, we never see that employee’s name. We see the brand name. Even when the employee acted on their own without the support of (and in spite of training or policies that dictate better choices), the company still makes headlines. And then, like clockwork, the CEO writes a letter (or issues a video) apologizing for the situation and taking accountability.

In leadership, accountability is unconditional.
The CEO may be 20 levels removed from the single individual that made terrible choices, but a strong leader still takes accountability. He/she steps up and says “What happened was wrong. We were wrong. I am responsible. I will fix it. You can hold me accountable. Now here’s how I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again…”

There are four key elements to unconditional accountability:

  1. Set aside pride. When taking ownership of an error, it’s crucial for the leader to put his/her own pride aside and takes accountability for the issue whether it was in his/her own control or not. Whether the root cause is a policy that was enforced improperly or just a bad hire, it’s not time to make excuses.
  2. Apologize unconditionally. The worst kind of apology is one that includes an “if” statement. “I’m sorry if this affected you.” The most well-received heartfelt apologies come easily, often, and with no conditions. But the apology itself is weak without a clear, transparent plan to fix the root cause.
  3. Gather information. Ask for input from other individuals who could play a role in addressing the issue. Be ready to listen. This includes individuals who were present when the situation arose, people affected by the issue, and trusted/loyal customers/vendors/partners. Be open to hearing what you could have done differently, as well.
  4. Make a plan and bring others along on the journey. When apologizing and accepting responsibility, people want to know change will happen. They don’t necessarily need to know every detail of the plan, but they want to be included on the ride. Fixing a problem is a process, and enhanced transparency into the process can help ensure that you get it right the second time around.

When leaders readily and comfortably take accountability for problems, it fosters a culture of accountability where future errors aren’t covered up. They’re brought to the surface along with suggestions for improvements. Along with building a culture of accountability, this approach will also build trust within teams and respect throughout the organization.

The leader’s approach to resolving a problem sets the tone for the organization. When blame and excuses are pushed aside and a culture of accountability and excellence is promoted, the original error becomes a footnote in the greater story of the path to success.