Being a leader isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
If something goes wrong in your team or department, the buck stops with you. You have to put up your hand and take ownership of the mistake. You have to take accountability for your actions (or lack thereof).
This can hard to do, but for leaders it’s vital. Taking accountability builds trust and respect, and models a behavior of accountability in your employees and team.
This article will delve into the importance of leadership accountability, help you figure out if you’re holding yourself accountable, and give tips on how to improve personal accountability and the culture of accountability at your organization.
We’d better get started.
What is accountability?
This definition of accountability from Business Dictionary hits the nail on the head:
“The obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner.”
Thus, if a leader takes accountability for something (for example, a big project), it means they’re taking full ownership of it. They’re holding themselves accountable for its success or failure.
If that project misses its deadline because a person on their team didn’t do their share of the work, the leader is still ultimately accountable. As the project manager, it was their responsibility to ensure their teammate had everything they needed to get the job done.
What happens if you lack accountability?
If the leader in the example above refuses to take any ownership for the failure of the big project, they’re no longer holding themselves accountable. This can have disastrous effects that ripple throughout the business.
Here are three big problems that can arise when accountability is ignored:
First, it breeds resentment. If you refuse to admit you’ve done something wrong as a leader and won’t take accountability for failure, others will begin to resent you.
Even if you have some great communicators on your team, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll tell you that you’re not holding yourself accountable. Giving unsolicited feedback to leaders is viewed as criticism. Thus, without the option for healthy communication, resentment builds.
Second, it shatters trust and respect. If you say you’ll do something, fail to do it, then don’t own your failure, you’ll lose respect and trust will erode.
Without trust in leaders, people become less transparent, collaborative, honest, and ultimately less engaged. They can begin to feel less aligned with company values, which leaders are meant to exemplify, and may start looking for a workplace that better matches their values.
Third, it sets a poor example. Employees look to their leaders to set the tone in a business. If a leader is refusing to take accountability then a “pass the buck” mentality can trickle down through the organization.
If this occurs, disorganization increases. If no-one holds each other accountable, it slowly becomes acceptable to arrive ten minutes late for meetings and push back deadlines time and again.
It’s easy to see how a lack of accountability can cause an organization to slowly unravel. Time gets wasted, deadlines are unpredictable, and people get frustrated.
Check yourself: are you holding yourself accountable?
Leaders must be hyper aware of holding themselves accountable. As mentioned above, very few employees would be willing to give you honest feedback on this issue, even if you asked them for it.
However, in a global leadership study, 72% of people believe that leadership accountability is a critical issue in their organization. Clearly, not enough of our leaders are holding themselves accountable.
Are you holding yourself accountable? Think of your language:
- When confronted with an issue, big or small, are you willing to say “that was my fault”?
- If you’re willing to own up to it being your fault, do you add “but…” and an excuse?
- How willing are you to simply say “I don’t know” when you haven’t got the answer to a question?
5 tips to hold yourself accountable
Everyone in a business needs to take ownership over their projects and role for the company to run smoothly and successfully.
Here are five tips for more leadership accountability:
- Watch your language. This can be a big signal of whether you hold yourself accountable or not. If you find yourself evading ownership, take stock and try to amend your behaviour. If you don’t, you’ll slowly break down the trust between you and the person you’re talking to. Use words and a tone that demonstrate intent of ownership and you can begin to rebuild that trust.
- Take pause and be honest. Similar to my first point, it really is ok to say “I don’t know” or “I forgot”. Being a leader doesn’t turn you into a robot or superhero. It’s ok to make mistakes. Everyone can relate to this and you’ll build more respect through honesty than always seeming right.
- Work to fix the problem. Once you’ve owned up to your mistake, don’t foist the problem onto someone else. Being accountable for something means getting the job done. That means you need to see the project through, even if you failed at first. And don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
- Think of what’s best for the company. A great leader realizes that true success is when the entire company is doing well. It’s not about simply furthering themselves or seeking glory.
- Step up to the plate. Leaders who have a fear of leading, or of getting things wrong, will tend to shirk accountability. If you want to lead, then you need to step into it with real gusto. This means you need to be willing to make hard decisions and own up to them if they turn out to be wrong.
A final word on fear
Often we shy away from accountability out of fear. We fear getting something wrong, and consequently seeming incompetent, stupid, or forgetful. We then fear the judgement or reprimand that can come with this.
“Even before kindergarten, we’re taught failure is bad. What if we can’t do it or do it right or something goes wrong? So, we whittle down the scope, involve others so blame can be shared, [...] or let our fear hold us back from really creative solutions.”
It’s hard to escape this feeling, but often there’s no harm in getting things wrong. Try to remember that we learn from our mistakes and it’s only when we push ourselves that we can reach the true extent of our abilities.
And if you do make a mistake, just own up to it. It’s quite a relatable experience.
Leadership accountability is essential for maintaining trust with colleagues, which influences everything from clear communication to employee engagement. If you’re a leader, try to be very honest with yourself and discover if you truly take accountability for your actions. Hopefully this article has helped you do that, and more.
About the Author
Hannah's a freelance content marketer. Her articles enable readers to make positive changes to their work lives. When she’s not tapping away at her laptop, she’s drinking good coffee and adventuring. You can contact her via LinkedIn.