A childhood best friend told me once that she what she most appreciates about me is that I'm very straightforward. I've always highly valued the truth and follow-through. This translates into taking ownership of my mistakes and keeping my word.
Though sharing the fact that my grandma’s cat ate my headphones with the sales associate at Radioshack when asked “why do you need to return these, what happened to them?” didn’t earn me any merit badges with my grandma when I was 8 (she actually pinched me for this truth-telling, before marching me out of the store, headphones un-returned); immediately copping to missing a deadline at my first law firm definitely did with my boss.
In the law firm example, my boss was mad initially, but our subsequent discussion about problem-solving resulted in a relatively quick and painless solution. We identified the root problem and implemented a system to prevent the problem from happening again: a new calendar system with reminders.
Though I got chewed out for making the error, afterwards, I was also praised for coming to my boss with the problem instead of trying to hide it. He hammered home that the best way to solve problems is not to bury them or pretend they don’t exist, or to try to deal with them on your own, but to take ownership of the situation and come up with a suite of proposed, workable solutions to deal with the problem. The key piece is not to ask for help while dumping your error in someone else’s lap to fix, it’s admitting your mistake and then demonstrating that you’re prepared and capable of fixing it.
Granted, not every boss might have reacted this way. But that’s why this particular former boss is also more than just a boss: he’s a mentor.
The leadership industry extolls the virtues of accountability. Across the literature I’ve found that accountability is consistently cited as one of the top 5-10 traits of successful professionals.
Cy Wakeman, a drama researcher, leadership speaker and consultant, and founder of Reality-Based Leadership (a consulting company), says that “[a]ccountability as we know it really has 4 factors:
(From her blog, “Redefining Accountability in the Workplace”).
Cy says that accountability is a mindset – not a skillset – and that accountability is a better predictor of success than performance. But Cy says that ownership is not really what accountability is all about. I disagree.
From my perspective, ownership and continuous learning are critical to this 4 ingredient recipe. How can one be accountable without taking ownership of one’s mistakes and demonstrating both the willingness and the ability to learn from them? True, a leader doesn’t dwell on their mistakes, or invite blame. Strong leaders will, however, matter-of-factly take ownership of errors and identify the path forward with confidence and grace.
In Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager, Steven Covey says that leaders exhibit 4 strong qualities above all else: they demonstrate respect, listen first, clarify expectations, and practice accountability. When leaders fail to practice accountability they set a bad example for followers. Why should employees need to follow through when the employer doesn’t?
I’ve seen how failure in leadership to demonstrate accountability or follow-through has resulted in lost trust in a company by inside and outside stakeholders, loss of clients and allies, and reduced employee productivity. Such behaviors include:
failure to admit to the leader's role and/or responsibility for a negative outcome for the company,
failure to acknowledge the impacts of their decisions on the company,
failure to offer resources or solutions to rectify problems,
failure to perform to the company standard, and even
failure to show up
No one is perfect. No leader can excel at all of the tasks and responsibilities that they’ll have to handle during their tenure – but this is where accountability comes in.
Accountability means identifying your weaknesses and taking actions to shore them up. This can mean delegating tasks to others who are more capable, outsourcing responsibilities in order to better balance your load, bringing in expert consultants or attending trainings to beef up your own skills.
Accountability means keeping your word.
Accountability also means that you demonstrate honesty and integrity, admitting when you’re wrong in a tactful way. And, accountability also means problem solving. You must be capable of providing answers - or a menu of options for your crew choose from. Allowing the crew to select the path forward can earn buy in, restoring their faith and confidence in the captain. But it must be YOU who provides the options. If you do this the right way, exhibiting humility and poise, those around you will view you as a problem-solver who learns from and will not repeat mistakes.
This is the kind of accountable leadership we should all aspire to.