How Real Leaders Demonstrate Accountability

Everyone wants to be a leader. However, few are prepared to accept the accountability that goes with it. But you can’t have one without the other. They are two sides of the same coin.

President Harry Truman, “The Buck Stops Here”

President Harry Truman, “The Buck Stops Here”

But what does accountability look like?

First and foremost, it means that you accept responsibility for the outcomes expected of you—both good and bad. You don’t blame others. And you don’t blame the external environment. There are always things you could have done—or still can do—to change the outcome.

Until you take responsibility, you are a victim. And being a victim is the exact opposite of being a leader.

Victims are passive. They are acted upon. Leaders are active. They take initiative to influence the outcome.

When I was the CEO of Thomas Nelson, we held a meeting once a month with our divisional leaders. We required each of them to write a report, detailing what happened the previous month.

They submitted their reports to my Executive Leadership Team. Then we meet with each leader face-to-face to discuss his or her operating results.

These reports provided a summary of what happened and a review of the key metrics that drove the business. We also asked each division head to describe how their leadership succeeded or failed.

We asked, “What was it about your leadership that produced these results?” The underlying assumption was that it is all about their leadership. We did not allow them to blame anyone internally or externally.

I remember one month when Allen Arnold did a particularly good job of this in his report. I have asked his permission to include it here, because I believe it serves as a great model for others.

By way of background, Allen leads the Thomas Nelson Fiction division. He started this division several years ago and has done a great job leading it to it’s current level of success.

But even great leaders, like Allen, have bad months. But when they do, they take full responsibility for it. (I have bracketed out sensitive, proprietary information.)

As Publisher, I take full ownership of failing to hit October’s Target. I also take full responsibility to lead the turnaround to overcome the shortfall. The operating results reflect my leadership decisions, including some key factors below:

  1. I made the decision to release [Novel A] in the last month of the fiscal year. As a result, we had all the revenue in our last fiscal year and all the returns in this fiscal year. I must be smarter about this in the future.

    Starting with the Fiscal 09 Plan, I’m moving my major [Author A] release from March to April, which means we’ll start our year with a bang. It also allows for revenue and returns for our top titles to occur in the same year from here forward.

  2. I depended heavily on movie tie-ins for major revenue yet had no control over the timing of the movie release. [Novel B], [Novel C], and [Novel D] movies were all set for Summer / Fall 2008 releases, yet the studios delayed all three with no new release dates set.

    I’ve learned not to lock in firm revenue projections based on movies I have no control over. While novelizations can be profitable, I will no longer include titles tied to movies on the Fiction Title Plan. They will drop-in only when the movie release schedule is 100% firm. Lesson learned.

  3. I overestimated how easy it would be to sell-in our new line of [Category E] novels. It is still early in our move into this category, but initial sell-in is lower than I anticipated.

    I remain convinced of the viability and strategic wisdom of the investment we’re making; it is simply a matter of building traction with sales, retailers, and consumers. My team and I have now stepped up and are doing more to drive [Category E] sell-in—and sell-through.

  4. I haven’t acquired enough [certain type of authors]. I’m committed to providing novels that satisfy this felt need in the marketplace. It is a successful genre and other publishers have had good success with it.

    However, I should have moved on this sooner since the time from acquisition to finished product is often well over a year. But I am now on track to recover the lost ground.

  5. I need to create a better balanced revenue plan. As is apparent this November (with only one title releasing), the lack of major, revenue-driving products in every month is having a negative impact. I won’t let this happen again.

Notice several items in Allen’s comments:

  1. They all make heavy use of the pronoun “I.” Allen didn’t hide behind his team (e.g., “we didn’t do such and such”) or blame others (e.g., “they didn’t do such and such.”).
  2. He is specific about the decisions he made and the results he achieved. He understands that the two are linked. Smart leaders get this. It is fundamental to driving change.
  3. He didn’t wallow in remorse or self-pity. He simply accepts responsibility for his mistakes, learns what he can, and pledges to do better.
  4. He took actions to correct the problem. This is the great thing about responsibility. Once you own it, you can begin fixing it. This eliminates a lot of wasted effort in playing the victim and blaming others.

It is also important for leaders to take responsibility for the good results they produce. When a leader exceeds his target, there is much he can learn, too. And in this meetings, we also took the time to reinforce these actions, so they would continue.

The bottom line is that no organization can grow and prosper until the leaders are willing to step up and take responsibility. As that begins to happen, it opens up a whole world of possibility.

Question: Does your organization hold leaders accountable? What effect does this have on the results? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
Want to launch your own blog or upgrade to self-hosted WordPress? Watch my free, twenty-minute screencast. I show you exactly how to do it. You don’t need any technical knowledge. Click here to get started.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • Peter Walters

     In a world of “It’s not really my fault because..”  this is a great post.  “Until you take responsibility, you are a victim. And being a victim is the exact opposite of being a leader.” is a great line and I am putting it in my illustration file   

  • Chip Dizard

    I am a first-year teacher in urban Baltimore City.  I sometimes hear teachers berate kids and make excuses that kids can’t learn and achieve. Excuses abound on why we can’t meet our goals.  It’s so easy to get caught up into that mindset.  Our leadership team makes little or no excuses for achievement.  To me it’s a mindset from the top, but the troops need to believe that kids can achieve despite of the odds.  

    My former boss says “The kids come as is” and that is how I approach teaching. Will I be able to reach everyone? No, but the ones that do listen will thank me years later.  I am accountable to them. 

  • Pingback: Saturday Evening Post(s) #7

  • Christopher Miller

    Something I am learning as I dive back into the management game is that it is about: a) taking personal responsibility for the overarching goals of my department and b) having a contingency plan when something I am depending on falls through. This article is so helpful with stopping excuses, acknowledging a shortfall and coming up with a plan to avoid them in the future. Thank you.

  • Ligi

    gr8 thought!!!!
    Every leader must know this fact of growing in Leadership!!!

  • David @ Time Clock

    Definitely that use of “I” seems to be key. Thanks for the reminder that we need to take accountability for what we do!

  • Rob Moore

    I agree that many people don’t want to be accountable for their actions in leadership positions but it’s critical in order to be a successful leader. Its very difficult to get results when there’s little to no accountability. The best leaders take the bull by the horns and do whatever is necessary as a leader to succeed. Very good information here and thanks for sharing!

  • Pingback: 5 Pitfalls Of Effective Leadership |

  • Pingback: How Being Wrong Can Sometimes Be Right | Michael Hyatt

  • Pingback: Do you ‘CYA’? Well, C U L8R! « Consult the MBA

  • Pingback: The Single Most Important Quality You Need to Be a Good Partner - A Human Foundation

  • Pingback: Leadership and accountability | Lead on Purpose

  • Kay

    Our senior Leader who isn’t around all the time certainly does, our direct manger does not. It is very frustrating and causes quite a bit of infighting amongst the Leadership group. This is due to the managers avoidant behaviour in dealing with staff perception or hearsay. He refuses to give it any notice. And when there is evidence of an issue, he uses strong attribution against the character of the person who is giving the feedback. He will say things like: “What is this persons performance or character like”. “Do we really believe this would happen”. I have the view that if there is a perception there is a problem. This lack of awareness from the manager causes the leadership team in my organisation to appear to not be accountable and to hold others accountable, it affects morale, attrition and UPA.