Leadership Essentials – Accountability

small black dog starring at pie on table top

Over the next four posts I want to turn our attention to the essentials of leadership, starting today with accountability. Here is today’s assertion:

You cannot create a culture of accountability while being unaccountable yourself.

I write these words the morning I am going to lead a meeting to discuss what went wrong with a production plan. I am going to start that meeting off telling the group that the predicament we are in is ultimately my fault. I am ultimately accountable for Sales and Operations at Hoffer Plastics, so this is on me.

Without going into all the details of a private matter, I can share that while this is a fixable problem, it will be a costly one. I can also say that it is a situation where I was not directly involved in the process of deciding what action to take. Meaning, I did not make the call directly (emphasis on the word directly). I was involved in other ventures when this decision was made. After all, I cannot be involved in every venture and neither can you — so do not misread this post as suggesting to never delegate—I share this, however, to explain that even when the leader is not directly involved in the decision making process, they are still accountable for the action taken.

Before going further, let me pause to acknowledge the leader’s temptation in a situation like the one described above. The leader’s temptation is to give lip service to “Extreme Ownership,” and practice “Extreme Blame-Shifting.” For example, I could blame those directly involved in this situation for making an incorrect decision. After all, I was not directly involved. But, this is problematic on multiple levels: it puts me “above” the situation which indirectly hurts my credibility and trustworthiness. It also teaches the team that blaming others is acceptable and this only tempts them to blame others below them when things go wrong — and things always will go wrong at some point. All of this is unproductive and portrays poor leadership.

The other choice is to follow what I will refer to here as the thorny path of the leader. It is thorny and many leaders avoid it because it will hurt. But, someone has to take out a machete and forge a path forward, so should it not be the leader? I am of course referring to the path of “Extreme Ownership,” which is nothing less than extreme accountability. In the above situation, this path acknowledges the mistakes I made in leading the group. For example, I should have challenged the decision making process more than I did since one of our Sales people had voiced a concern about this change in plan. I should have also asked the team for a contingency plan, which would have safeguarded us from being in the predicament we are in today. These considerations, and I could list more, are more apparent to one not directly involved (but still directly accountable!). Putting these “should haves” aside, the accountability still stops with me. This means that I have to set the new course by hacking away at the thorns my failed leadership created. There is no other choice for the leader to make.

If you find yourself arguing with this level of accountability, I would invite you to reconsider your views of what the word means. Could it be that this kind of accountability is modeled so poorly by most leaders these days that we have had to add the word “extreme” in front of “ownership/accountability” to let many off the hook?

I hope this is not so with us. Accountability is accountability. Period. The buck stops with the one others follow. For leaders cannot create a culture of accountability without accountability starting first with them. There is no other way, as painful as it might be.