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Leadership Accountability is Key to Leading Effectively

Leadership Accountability is Key to Leading Effectively

Accountability is an essential leadership skill if you want to be a highly effective leader. We often talk about accountability in the context of managing others. However, accountability as a leadership skill requires that you take the skill of accountability beyond just getting the work done. Accountability as an act of leadership requires that you empower others to not only own tasks, but to also own the results with you.

What is accountability?

three smiling people - leadership accountability

At its most basic level accountability is the ability to count on others. Accountable people both make promises and honor their promises reliably.

Notice I use the word “honor” vs. “keep” your promises. That’s because none of us keeps every promise we make despite our best intentions. Yet when you honor a promise, you take personal responsibility for the impact when you are unable to keep a promise. To be accountable includes your commitment to address the fallout from breakdowns regardless of who is at fault.

Why is accountability important in leadership?

woman with leadership accountability
Photographer: You X Ventures | Source: Unsplash

If you want your team members to be accountable you must first demonstrate personal accountability by reliably making and honoring your promises to others. If you do not practice personal accountability yourself, it will be very difficult to cultivate accountable behavior in others.

As a manager accountability means ensuring people reliably do what they promise. Managers implement accountability largely through delegating. However, when you want to shift from managing to leading, the skill of accountability goes a step further.

It’s one thing to delegate tasks by making clear and specific requests. However, accountability becomes a leadership skill when you request that someone promise a result. Why? Because requesting someone own a result is how you empower ownership.

Effective leaders empower ownership when you elevate your requests FROM asking for tasks to be completed TO asking someone to promise an outcome.

Why do leaders struggle with accountability?

Woman struggling with accountability
Photographer: Annie Spratt | Source: Unsplash

If you want your team members to be accountable, you must first demonstrate personal accountability by reliably making and honoring your promises to others.

A lack of accountability manifests as complaints such as “no one takes ownership” or “people aren’t accountable” are all too common. These complaints point to the struggles leaders often have with elevating their leadership through the skill of accountability. It can feel burdensome when you feel like you are among the few who take real ownership. And it can be incredibly frustrating when the people who work with and for you don’t seem to reliably honor their promises. While it may be easy to blame the culture in your organization or even society for this, that doesn’t help solve your problem or get results.

Accountability is the skill of requesting and negotiating for mutually satisfying results. Achieving satisfying results through accountability, however, requires rigorous practice.

Unfortunately, all too often the rigor required is lacking. The good news is that once you identify the most common sources of breakdowns you can address them easily. There are two likely points in a leader’s interactions where accountability is most likely to break down.

The first breakdown in accountability is when you don’t get what you want or expect.

When you notice this is happening frequently there is a typical cause and a remarkably simple solution. The cause of not getting what you want or expect is failing to ask for what you want with enough clarity and specificity.

In other words, consider that if you make a request and do not get what you want or expect, the person responsible for your lack of satisfaction is you. Leaders take on a mindset that “the success of every interaction is up to me”.

The simple solution to close the expectations and reality gap is to make clearer and more specific requests. Sometimes that means asking someone to try again, but this time with better, more specific guidance from you. Other times you can’t go back, but you can together look at what went wrong so you work better together going forward.

Said simply, the gap between what is expected and what is received is a breakdown in communicating a common purpose and clear expectations.

Accountability as a leadership skill is an exercise in clear communication.

A second breakdown in accountability is when you cannot depend on ownership from others.

Lack of ownership is a frequent complaint of many leaders. Yet I find those leaders often have a hard time explaining what exactly that means. There are a number of symptoms of this breakdown that help to articulate how the problem manifests. One symptom is when people are frequently asking you to tell them what to do. Another is when something doesn’t get handled and the response is “I did my part”. That’s just another way to say “it’s not my fault, so it’s not my job to fix the problem”.

Creating ownership through accountability requires you attend to two things

two women talking leadership accountability
Photographer: Amy Hirschi | Source: Unsplash

1. Provide a complete understanding of the context of the request.

This includes providing background on why you are making the request. Consider these questions when formulating a request when you want to increase accountability:

  1. What is the larger goal your request is in service of?
  2. Who is depending on this and why?
  3. What are the opportunities if you succeed or consequences if you fail?

When you engage someone as your partner in producing a result vs. assign tasks, you increase the likelihood of ownership.

2. Ask for someone to own a result or an outcome vs. a task.

For example, there is a big difference between requesting a report with a prescribed format vs. requesting a report that addresses the outcome of answering an important question. When working to give you a prescribed report, the focus is on giving you what you want. Little thinking or ownership is required. While instead working to create a report to answer an important question requires thinking about what information is needed and how it can best be presented.

The bottom line is this: you can elevate your leadership through accountability conversations by shifting your focus from managing tasks to negotiating ownership of outcomes.

When you request outcomes rather than tasks you develop your ability to cultivate ownership in others. In doing so you also empower others to take ownership with confidence. This is the heart of what leadership accountability looks like in action.

Ask people to own results and you will create owners. In doing so you will also be empowering them to step up to become accountable leaders themselves. In the process you will be well on your way to creating a culture of accountability.

  • This was very well put! I think it can be easy to fall into the trap of asking people to be held accountable for tasks as opposed to outcomes. If you delegate properly and give them ownership and direction, this should alleviate that problem.

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