Showing Accountability – Leadership by Example

Own your own shit, give feedback direct, respect failure, learn from failure, share failure

“Implementing Extreme Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team.”
— Jocko Willink, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

The Leader ultimately assumes responsibility for their teams’ successes and creates the structure and processes to help their teams deliver on expectations. They also own the failures, and they work towards learning how to prevent them, and prepare the team for the future.

“When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else.”
― David Brin

Delegation is not giving away accountability

I have seen a number of times where C Suite or senior leadership have delegated a problem or an idea to a leader. Than the senior leadership does nothing.  It as if the problem/idea has being removed from their brain.  They do not encourage others to get behind the leader in any meaningful way.  I called this ‘Delegate and Abandon’, sometimes work out but if this thing affects stakeholders or multiple peers and it is not on their priority list, they could be holding a ‘poison cup’ and slowly the thing will fail and that leader gets to take the fall.

If you delegated something you are still accountable for the success and you should work with the person you delegated the thing to. Setup checkin times, agree how all parties should ‘play’ in this way and how you can help. Yes, let the leader set the tone, but be an advocate and be available.  Do not delegate and ghost..

Do not delegate feedback

Too often I have seen people give feedback via other people e.g. their bosses, rather than talk to the them direct. You are accountable to owe your own feedback.  This indirect feedback, loses context, specifies that need to be understand and heard by the receiver – and create poor quality feedback.  In my experience, it also creates a lot of toxicity in a culture where people cannot talk directly to each other – through gossip, politics and reputation management.

So next time you have something to say to someone, talk to them directly, not through their boss, HR, or some other way. In you are a leader you need to own this.

Why is accountability avoided?

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Avoidance of Accountability is highlighted as one of the five dysfunctions.


In the Book Mistakes were made (but not by me) it looks at the consequences that our tendencies to under-rate our own culpability for mistakes and misdemeanours has and to over-rate the intention and severity of the actions of others when committed against us. The ‘us’ here is not just ourselves personally, but also the ‘us’ as a group or as a society as a whole.

Are you inadvertently sending a message that erodes ownership and responsibility among subordinates? We were.

L. David Marquet, Turn the Ship Around!

Share Failures

Owning means sharing what went wrong, the causes and the arising symptoms, so others can learn from the failure.  Hiding failures is a sign of incompetent leadership or worse a judgmental culture.

In the Agile process of Software Engineering it is common to have regular retrospectives every couple weeks, to learn what went well, what should be stopped or failed and how to get better.  Sometime you will hear the term of Continuous Improvement and or Kaizen (the translation of kai (“change”) zen (“good”) is “improvement”).

Thoughts on Accountability:

  1. Own what you say, if you got it wrong admit it
  2. As a leader the words that come out of your mouth, have much more power.  Understand how they make others feel.
  3. Your team will copy your behaviors, how accountable you are to your team, will impact their teams.
  4. Make failure easy to talk about, build psychological safety amongst your team, so talking about failures is OK and expected
  5. Do not haze people for failure, it can create unexpected culture consequences
  6. Communicate the tough things early, if there is not a plan, give them a sense when one will be created and if possible how – they need to know you are on it
  7. With difficult meeting follow up with an email with the key points laid out
  8. No one should be surprised by not being promoted
  9. Own failures and understand why they happen e.g. retrospectives, post failure meeting

Resources for Accountability:

Back to the list of traits

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