Updated: May 6, 2019
When I decided to move to Miami for law school, my mom told me, “Oh no. You’d better watch out, they’ll eat you alive.”
My mom was afraid that I’d be taken advantage of. I carried – and to some extent still do carry – my heart on my sleeve. I had a tendency to speak my mind freely and was known to share my truths and experiences with people without necessarily taking the time to get to know them first. This is risky, because some people can’t – or shouldn’t – be trusted with your heart. So my mom cautioned me to filter myself, to exercise discretion and try not to be taken advantage of when meeting people and making new friends.
Even so, to this day, I have a hard time not speaking certain truths. This includes 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, after the initial fury subsided, the discussion of next steps and how to solve the problem resulted in a relatively quick and painless solution. This also led to the identification of the cause of the problem and collaborative trouble-shooting to implement a system to prevent the problem from happening again: in the case of the missed deadline, 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. At least four of the blogs I’ve written about books on leadership, management and success discuss the importance of accountability in the workplace (What the Most Successful People do at Work, Excelling as a Manager or Supervisor, Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager, and the Four Tendencies).
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, express regret over them, 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?
In past jobs I’ve witnessed first-hand how different CEOs’/Directors’/Partners’/Presidents’:
failure to admit to their role and/or responsibility for a negative outcome for the company,
failure to acknowledge the impacts of their decisions on the company,
failure to address said impacts by offering resources or solutions to rectify them,
failure to perform to the company standard, and even
failure to show up
resulted in lost trust in the company by inside and outside stakeholders, lost clients and allies, tanked staff morale, reduced productivity, and even caused employee turnover.
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.