Accountability is defined as the willingness to accept responsibility. The definition is clear and without ambiguity. It can be further described as the point in leadership where absolute responsibility resides. President Truman is famously quoted as saying, “The buck stops here.” In the naval service it is not uncommon for a ships captain to be relieved of his or her duties if something untoward happens to the vessel while under their command. The Captain can be asleep in their quarters when the ship runs aground (while under the watchful eye of a subordinate) and damages the hull, requiring the ship to be dry-docked for several months. Guess what? The Captain will likely be removed and assigned shore duties as a matter of practice. The theory of accountability has scuttled more than a few careers in the naval service and rightfully so. It continues to serve as the foundation in military leadership and ensures that each man and woman feels it an imperative to do their job to the best of their ability.
The concept of accountability has many variations in the private and public sectors. It’s usually found in a sentence from an employee voluntarily providing feedback on the lack of its existence among executive ranks or other management personnel. I don’t mean to be cynical, but people want to know that there is an end to the blame game when something goes wrong. On the surface it serves as a stopping point to assess the situation, figure out what went wrong and then implement a plan to recover and move forward typically under new leadership. The absence of accountability can be extremely detrimental to productivity, morale and a litany of dynamics in the practice of leadership. The problem, as I see it, is that it’s not often seen in the first four or five corrective actions undertaken in addressing major issues. We see this in public sector employment frequently as do those in the private sector, I’m certain.
Why? Because it’s extremely difficult to follow through on. Let me say it another way, it’s the toughest thing you can do as a leader; to hold someone accountable for their actions or lack thereof. Exercising accountability typically results in someone in a management position losing his or her job. For executives the prospect of counseling an employee and then telling them they will be re-assigned or worse, fired, is as difficult a conversation as you will ever have. I liken it to swallowing a bone and it being just large enough to get temporarily lodged in your throat. You know it will pass, but there is a split second there when you think, “this could be it.” It is extremely uncomfortable and there is no other way to characterize it.
What happens in the absence of accountability? For one, tons of finger pointing. This unproductive exercise of jumping from one person to another trying desperately to determine who “screwed the pooch,” can be a colossal waste of time. And ultimately will end with you no closer to the crux of what your real problems may be. When a workforce knows that accountability is at the foundation of daily operations those in leadership positions will train down to the best of their abilities. They can’t be in every single place 24/7, so they had better train their subordinates to handle the significant tasks assigned to them. At the end of the day it seems selfish and self-preserving, but in reality it ensures a more thorough approach to the development of skills at all levels of the workforce and a more sincere approach to talent acquisition.
There is one other critical dynamic which develops in a world where accountability rules. At its core, it promotes the development of a system of trust between leaders up and down the chain and this trust extends to the wider workforce. Without the presence of accountability you have a broken link in a vital chain required to hold your ship together. We have all heard the expression that you are only as strong as your weakest link. Try using a chain with a missing link.
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