President Harry S. Truman had a famous sign on his desk that read: “The Buck Stops Here.” A clear indicator that he accepted accountability for all the decisions of his administration. There are leaders like Truman in politics and organisations today, though not many.
Accountability starts with honesty. Being able to set aside personal pride and admit your own mistakes and being honest first with yourself, and then to all of those you serve as a leader.
It shows that you can be trusted as a leader and that even you can be fallible. I'm sorry if this is going to hurt your pride a little, but you are not perfect in everything you say and do. It's OK, I'm not either, and nor is anybody else.
That doesn't mean that we hide behind the excuse that “I'm not perfect” but it does mean being open to correction and improvement in a very public way.
I was running one of our Golf Leadership programmes for a local company owned and run by a very traditional, senior Asian businessman known by his initials “CS”. He happened to be teamed up with his female PA who had, until this day, never picked up a golf club. He was an old hand at the game with a very respectable handicap.
They were on the 5th and final tee for our game. A narrow fairway with tress on the left, water on the right and the green and hole just 220m in a dead straight line. It was a warm day with cloud cover and little wind. The PA took her spot at the tee, put everything she had learned into practice from the morning and calmly sent the ball flying, straight as an arrow to land 160m in the middle of the fairway. It was a beautiful thing to watch for a newcomer and she was thrilled.
The boss took his place, a grudging nod of appreciation to his PA and lined up for his shot. He'd skipped out on much of the morning session for “more vital and important things than training” and hooked his drive into the trees. A few choice dialect cusses and a spare ball magically appears on the tee. He lines up the shot, tests the weight of his custom clubs, a few practice swings and shuffles his feet and then swings with a beautiful, magnificent example of how to slice the ball into the water.
The faintest snort behind him, or was it a giggle? And the custom club comes crunching onto the big green ball beneath our feet accompanied by a stream of cusses. The boss collects himself, turns to my camera guy and demands the footage be erased.
Money is proffered and refused.
Threats are offered and similar rebuffed.
A while later I persuade the CS to allow us to show the video to all the team. He was so fearful of losing face in front of his staff and concerned that they would now know that he could lose his temper quite so violently.
I assured CS this was not going to be a moment of revelation to his staff. Rather, it was a moment of relief for them. Now, nobody had to tell him about the issue and risk that very temper.
We showed the video to the team and a lengthy discussion followed beginning with CS offering the whole team an apology for his behaviour and a request for their support going forward.
When we are honest with ourselves and with others, we are taking responsibility for our behaviours and actions and then we can hold ourselves accountable for the results.
2. Accountable leaders are honest and voluntarily say “I'm sorry” when something goes wrong and they bear some or all the responsibility for the wrongdoing.
When the wrongdoing is by someone who works for them, accountable leaders accept their part in their responsibility for the decisions or instructions that may have been a party to the wronghappening.
Too often we hear leaders shifting the focus of attention for the blame onto someone, or something else. Whether it's a politician “spinning” bad news and shifting the blame to anyone who is less able to defend themself, or the CEO of a multi-national desperately trying to escape responsibility for a major disaster.
“This was not our accident …” said Tony Hayward, Chief Executive of BP started his defence in light os the worst oil spill in US history as the Deepwater Horizon spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico. To give Tony Hayward some credit, he has provided us with an abject example of failed leadership accountability.
I am beginning to wonder if he has a new position teaching and training world politicians on how to avoid accountability and shift the blame on others.
Accountable leaders say “I'm sorry” BEFORE they get caught with their trousers down!
3. Accountable leaders do not avoid responsibility and they do not procrastinate, neither under nor over committing.
Before you take on something new you review your schedules and your strengths and talents to know whether you have the time and the capability to complete the work on time to the quality expected.
We have some obvious examples with the whole Brexit debacle. Political leaders who championed the leave campaign and once they won, buggered off and declared “my work is done”. Other leaders who assumed that the remain vote was secure and took a 50/50 gamble on something as trivial as an economic and trading union. Once they lost, disappeared into the backroom, hiding from the unpleasant task of fixing something that was horribly and catastrophically misjudged. After all, who cares if a few million poor people will struggle, at least I'm alright.
Once you do accept the responsibility for a task, you follow through and deliver. Not make excuses and leave it to others to pick up the pieces.
4. Accountable leaders seek input form others.
You know that one of the most powerful ways to develop and improve yourself is to talk it out with others, to seek advice from trusted and respected friends, bosses, colleagues, coaches or mentors. It's the recognition that they aren't as omnipotent as their ego might like and that I, even I, can be better and, critically, want to work on being better.
I met with a business leader recently to discuss their development needs and plans for the coming year. It was all terrific stuff but I noted that there was no mention of how he was planning to develop his leadership. Of course, this was a daft question on my part as it was obvious that it wasn't his leadership that needed developing, but everyone else's, though he did concede that his bosses could do with training too. It must be tough, I said, being the only perfect leader in the company…
Our problem with self-awareness is simple: We judge ourselves by our intentions. We judge others by their actions.
“I meant to make the right decision based on the information and the time I had available. I am very busy and have a lot on my plate right now. It's not my fault that I made a bad decision…”
Accountable leaders look for ways to do things differently and better in the future and take responsibility to initiate and instigate suitable changes to how they do things and what they do.
Accountable leaders are good for business (and for society).
In the weeks and months that followed the golf leadership programme, “CS” became a changed man and the business flourished. Engagement amongst the staff soared. Staff turnover slowed to a trickle. Sales increased and costs went down. And even his wife was happy (after she'd made a phone call to us at the office to check that he was telling the truth about events and I wasn't some teenage floozy trying to steal her husband away.)
Developing accountability is a challenge for most leaders yet it is well wroth it for personal and business benefits. Accountability increases trust within teams and builds respect between staff and leadership whilst promoting a sense of fairness that increases engagement in the workforce.
Accountability is not about the times you win, it's the times you almost win. It's about striving to be better, the promise of achieving goals and the continuous self-refinement. Accountability is a leaders commitment to excellence – raising their game, always improving and always lifting others up. Accountability is why being a leader is so tough and it's why there are so few truly good leaders.
Are your leaders accountable? Are you? What examples of good leadership and accountability have you seen? What's worked best for you in developing leadership accountability in your organisation?