Jul 06 2013

On Leaders and Accountability (Part 2): Why It’s Crucial to Life and the Superbowl

leeellislgEarlier this year, we experienced the Superbowl—thirty-two teams started the season (sixteen NFC and sixteen AFC with each conference having four divisions–North, South, East, and West–with four teams each). The goal for the season was the same for all teams—reach the Superbowl, but only two made it. The consequence of losses along the way knocked out the other 30 teams who were relegated to armchair quarterbacks. Whether we like it or not, consequences come into play in all areas of life, and that’s one reason that accountability is so important.

In my last blog, I began a discussion on accountability. This issue is so crucial in today’s workplace (and society in general) that I want to continue in the same vein. And in the weeks and months ahead, I’ll share a series of blogs on this subject including: the Why, the How, the Mistakes, and the ongoing struggle we all face in balancing results and relationships in leading ourselves and others.  Now, let’s get some clarity around the Why part.

The Individual Problem — Our DNA Requires Accountability

Without accountability, organizations and people typically get off track, miss their goals and begin to deteriorate.  So, what’s the problem and why is accountability so difficult?  I think it has a great deal to do with our human nature.

Both our bodies and our psyche are governed by the second law of thermodynamics. Regardless of how dedicated and disciplined we are, somewhere in our DNA is a natural bent to just get by; to put out the least effort needed; take the easy way out; and avoid pain and hardship as much as possible. Some call this lack of effort “mailing it in.”

Ironically there’s a twist because this tendency to be lazy can serve us well by inspiring us to develop more efficient technologies and pursue process improvements. Fortunately, the marketplace provides the consequences that sort out effective and efficient innovations and kill those that don’t cut it. Accountability eventually has its day.

Individually though, without accountability we tend to sink to a lower level of human performance. The cold truth is that we’re naturally lazy and may not be willing to expend the effort required to engage life and work with excellence and reliability.

The problem becomes compounded by other strains in our DNA–selfishness and greed can push us to take short cuts to getting what we want. Pride can keep us from seeing ourselves as we really are, and fear can cause us to avoid engaging difficult issues that make us uncomfortable (like affirming others or alternatively holding them accountable). 

Accountability Helps the Individual 

Accountability takes into account some other positive aspects of our human nature that can positively improve our performance like our need to achieve, our desire for approval, and our need for boundaries and consequences. We all want to “count for something”–to make a difference. Properly applied ac-“count”-ability actually helps us get where want to go in terms of achieving our goals and fulfilling our responsibilities. As leaders, we know that holding people accountable is essential for getting results and developing others. So we must approach every situation with a mindset of accountability and diligently develop and implement the skills to make it happen.

 Accountability is Essential for the Organization

There is an old management adage that “You can expect what you inspect” (also “You can’t expect what you don’t inspect”). In other words, a leader needs to know how progress is going and lead/manage as needed to keep things on track. Without meeting goals and achieving success, you can’t remain viable in business. In the military, executing plans in a timely and effective manner can mean life and death, so accountability is taught as an essential part of military leadership. Keeping your word and doing your duty are requirements for serving as an honorable person and leader. But isn’t that true in any work setting or relationship?

Look around at our culture. It’s clear that accountability would solve many of the problems that we see in government, business, education, nonprofits, and individually as well. We need a new mindset that will act like a digital billboard, flashing ACCOUNTABILITY in bold caps, grabbing our attention and reminding us that accountability is essential for progress. Without it we usually don’t progress, but rather we tend to regress as we’re overtaken by that second law—laziness.

So where do you stand on this issue–is it personal or cultural? In what ways are you succeeding in holding yourself accountable? In what areas are you “mailing it in”? How hard is it for you to hold others accountable? Please share your thoughts and let’s get a conversation going. Your response may be that digital billboard flashing for someone else. We can help each other.

(In the next article, we’ll cover how to positively use accountability in life and work.)

Lee Ellis 
is Founder & President of Leadership Freedom LLC® & FreedomStar Media™.
He is a leadership consultant and expert in teambuilding, executive development & assessments
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He is the author of Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton

About the author

Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis is a speaker and the author of Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, in which he shares stories from his experiences as a Vietnam POW and highlights leadership lessons learned in the camps. As president of Leadership Freedom, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, Lee has consulted in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, executive development, and succession planning for more than 15 years. For more information, please visit www.leadingwithhonor.com.