A Leader’s Role in Accountability

This week I was involved in discussion with 40 senior level executives on the topic of a leader’s role in accountability and creating an accountable culture. It was awesome. I thought today I would share my thoughts and conclusions from the events.

The goal of any direction is to have people fully engaged in getting the right work done. There are, however, times when a team member does not do what is expected or flat out refuses to do what has been asked. This is often referred to as a leader’s work of “holding people accountable.”

I really don’t prefer the word accountability. I prefer responsibility.

  • Accountability is something you do TO me.
  • Responsibility is something I do FOR you.

It All Begins with a Commitment to Purpose

  • Leaders exist to ensure their institution has a purpose and everyone in it is dialed into achieving the purpose. At the end of the day, the purpose of an institution is to serve people; the people who have invested in it, its customers, the people who are its employees, the people in its community. If it does not perform – it compromises the needs and potential of all those people. It’s a significant responsibility for leaders.
  • If people knowingly and willingly join an institution they are accepting accountability to do all they can to help the institution achieve its purpose. They are making a commitment to a partnership. “Knowingly” implies full transparency on all relevant matters from both the company and the potential team member and “willingly” implies a lack of external threat and a free choice.

Leaders Must Act Fast When There Is a Problem

  • An important part of a leader’s job is to constantly monitor how well the institution is achieving its purpose as well as the degree to which their team members are acting on the accountability they accepted – both are required for success. Fast action on variances is a hallmark of great leaders and institutions.
  • When there is a negative variance from the plan the leader must solve for “why.” It is probably also good to problem solve for positive variances. Either can teach you something. However, failure to address negative variance puts the good of the whole at risk. The success of the institution is a leader’s role. If they do not act, then they are not acting accountably to the role they accepted – which is to ensure the institution achieves it purpose.

Leaders Can’t Look the Other Way

  • There will be times when a single person is the root cause of a negative variance. And, in my experience, it is in these cases where the true commitment to purpose and the commitment to culture are ultimately demonstrated by a leader. The more quickly a leader addresses the single issue the more likely they will find a healthy solution.
  • On the darker side, when a leader does not address negative performance, they serve notice to all about their lack of commitment to their purpose. What appears on first blush to be a matter of one person will quickly become an institution wide component of culture. Both the speed and the manner in which an issue is addressed will speak volumes to the institution. John Stuart Mills once said “”It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Spock paraphrased this in his famous Star Trek line “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or the few.” And this is where accountability becomes a challenge.

Accountability Is Not Power

  • If you think of accountability in terms of the leader’s authority to manage outcomes through the use of their positional power, you miss the entire point. Accountability cannot be forced on a person – consequences can. But if we want to achieve the potential of an institution or a person – accountability must be willingly accepted. People don’t want to be “held” accountable – that’s being controlled. In high performing institutions people are committed and act responsibly. This requires us to think a bit differently about shortcomings. The use of power can get compliance, but never commitment.

Problem Solve for Root Cause – Don’t Assume

  • As noted earlier, as soon as a negative variances is known, the leader must act. How they address the problem will determine the culture. All negative variance can be traced to one of four root causes:
    • Lack of knowledge – I just don’t know
    • Lack of skill – I just don’t know how
    • Lack of supporting environment – I don’t have what I need to do the work
    • Lack of engagement – my interest and the needs of the job no longer are a “fit”
  • If the root cause is one of the first three listed above, it is the work of the leader to make changes to improve the outcome; a more clear plan, better training, time for practice, necessary tools, providing all the information required (all the things that leaders DO) And leaders must approach mistakes with dignity and grace, using them as opportunities for learning and development. If there are negative consequences when these are the root causes – the entire organization watches and learns to be afraid.
  • If the cause is “d” in the above list, then there is a qualitatively different problem to be solved. This is where the phrase “hold him accountable” most often pops up and things get ugly. For this cause the leader needs to address the issues that their expectation for elements (like cost, quality, timeliness, behavior, and culture) and the team member’s expectations are different.

Accountability Is All About “FIT”

  • Once a leader has determined that a difference of expectation exists, there are three considerations:
  • Has the expectation changed, and the team member has not been informed? If so, update the team member.
  • A clear difference is established, which may be quite frustrating, but in a work setting there is no place for a Parent / Child transaction to be part of the processing of this difference. There is no place for blaming, shaming, or bribing these are motivations that come from fear and no good ever comes of that.
  • The question moves to one about fit. The person has a decision to make if they can act accountably. This was originally established at the time when the person accepted the job (knowingly and willingly). Now, we might ask the person “can you accept the accountability for the work, the culture, and personal and professional achievement that is part of this position?” If they say “yes,” believe them and get after it. If they say “no” then a leader helps them find a job, team, or company that is a better fit.

What Does it Mean for a Leader to Set an Environment for Responsible Action?

  1. Plan: all leaders should be able to explain the purpose of the institution, the team and the job. This is job 1. It answers the question “why” does this matter?
  2. A leader must be able to establish role clarity, KPIs, culture, behavioral expectations, standards of expectation….
  3. As noted above, a leader creates an environment where people can be successful; information, tools, vision, feedback….
  4. A leader must also model accountability in their own responsibilities which fosters a culture of accountability among their teams. Hypocrisy will erode accountable actions everywhere.

At one of my favorite companies the leadership team physically walks the entire facility each month, going from department to department, area to area, to give everyone the opportunity to present THEIR metrics, and how they are performing to THEIR metrics. They have a strategic planning process that engages everyone to develop metrics – THEIR metrics – that align well with our overall corporate metrics and visions. This has been a game changer for accountability. Nobody likes to present poor results.


  • When it is determined that there is not a fit, then the task is to find a better fit – not beat people up about it. The new home may be in the institution or not in the institution. This is often referred to as “making the hard decisions.” If you feel that way, it’s more likely that it’s hard for you which may be an indicator of other issues. When set up correctly, fit decisions are easy (MAYBE SAD) and could be a celebration of growth in what comes next.
  • When thinking about or processing fit decisions, there is no place for incentives or threats – these techniques will achieve temporary compliance at best, never true commitment. As stated at the very beginning – commitment and accountability go hand in hand.

Challenges to an Accountable Culture

  • Leaders face obstacles such as fear of conflict, lack of skills, and concerns about morale. Training and skill development may be required.
  • Leaders don’t understand or appreciate that the use of personal power alienates and scares people. It requires an appreciation for the fact that we are all adults struggling our way up Maslow’s pyramid and it requires supreme faith in the reality that there is a place of “perfect fit” for everyone. Not helping someone find their best fit is parental and in the long run harmful.
  • When the determination of “fit” includes judgement, anger, or lack of information then it is a power play and not really about fit. In the “fit: discussion the leader must be open to the possibility that the lack of fit is an institutional or leadership shortcoming.
  • That is not to say that every discussion of fit is 100% objective, there is absolutely a subjective component. This is where the heart and wisdom of the leader will matter. It is expected and hoped that leaders are in roles because they have experience and scope – BLINK. There are times when the data being used is “experience data.” Watch your batting average.

About the Author

Paul Doyle
Paul Doyle is the founder of LeaderWork. He brings more than 35 years of diverse business experience, including 15 years as a CEO, leading manufacturing companies. Paul has been active in North America with companies ranging from $20 million to $450 million in revenue.