It started as a silly argument about whether leaders are accountable for something or to someone. I was brought up believing that we are responsible for…. and accountable to ……..I didn’t convince the other party. However I still think I am right.
This got me thinking about how and when leaders are accountable, and to whom. It was made more stark when I did some work with a CEO who believed he could do whatever he liked because no one else had the authority or wielded the power to hold him to account. He had made some crazy decisions and was now trying to backtrack before his business started to unravel to the detriment of all.
There are currently some notable figures in the public domain who show signs that they don’t believe they need to be accountable to anyone for their bad, even unethical, decisions.
There is always a danger that people with power and with years ‘at the top’ feel irritated by the very idea that they need to report to others. They can so easily develop a sort of passive arrogance that carries the message, ‘My decisions are above questioning. I know what I’m doing!’. As if being accountable throws doubts on their abilities.
It can also work the other way, where people with power and status hold others to account because they believe it is their right and who believe that holding people to account means giving them a hard time.
Accountability doesn’t have to be seen in a negative light and in fact it is most effective when it is embraced in a positive way.
Leaders need to be accountable to those who can provide a reality check on their activities, especially those that carry a high risk. They need to be accountable to ensure any failures, and there will inevitably be some, are reflected on to gain some positive learning for the future. They need to be accountable to ensure they are supported through the strains and stresses of leadership for the sake of their own mental health and well-being. They need to be accountable to ensure that those with whom they work, who have less power they they do, are not made to suffer because of personality clashes, differences of perspective, inadequately thought through decisions or just because they have less power.
Rather than shun accountability leaders need to seek it and welcome it whether it be someone with authority and position, such as Board or Trustee Chair, or through close, open relationships with peers in a leadership team. Leaders might also consider their accountability to those who work with and ‘under’ them ………. a courageous approach to accountability that can generate a tremendous amount of respect from others.
Good accountability relationships require a level of mutual trust and respect and if these do not naturally exist they need to be worked at if the relationship is going to be beneficial to all. Mutuality is absolutely paramount and those to whom leaders are accountable should fulfil this responsibility with the best interest of the leader and the organisation in mind
The sure signs of a healthy culture of accountability is one where leaders are regularly asking for feedback on their activities whether they are proud of them or would rather see them swept them under the carpet. “How did that go?” “How could I have handled that better?” “What feedback would you like to give?” are all questions that leaders should feel free to express.
Accountability may be out of fashion in some circles but we can’t be good leaders without it.