“That’s On Me” Why Is Accountability Just For the Little People?

One of the indicators of the quality of individual and organizational leadership is how pervasive accountability is in the workplace. Like every other important leadership principle that has become a fad, accountability may be implemented in a genuine way or it may be implemented in a way that shows that leaders apply this characteristic to others but not to themselves.

The Police Chief
Recently Chief Police Dean Esserman of the New Haven Police Department was in the news. In the story Chief Esserman made an interesting comment. As he discussed the results of a recently completed investigation on one of his police officers he made this comment, “If there is a need for different training, that’s on me.” (http://www.nhregister.com/general-news/20150327/new-haven-police-officer-cleared-following-probe-into-teen-takedown-arrest-rallies-held-at-city-hall)

Esserman was referring to one of his police officers who followed his training protocol in a difficult situation. His actions raised the ire of citizens who claimed abuse in the way the officer handled the situation. When an investigation was completed, it found the police officer had followed the methods he was taught in training and he was exonerated.

Why did Chief Esserman’s comment stand out? He looked at a situation (and may not even have liked what he saw) but he realized that what happened was not because of poor people but because of a process that was in place and that was on him. He took responsibility that if things were to change it was up to him to initiate actions to create the desired state.

What Happened to Accountability in Government?

Over the last seven years we have constantly watched our national leaders point fingers, blame others and dodge personal responsibility. Whenever anything went wrong or when we, as a nation, had to go through tough times, an accusatory finger was raised. The endless litany of “Blame Bush” or “What difference does it make?’ demonstrates that our national leader’ attitude is more focused on trying to deflect personal culpability than accepting responsibility for and resolving issues that face us. That culture is one of non-accountability. These senior leaders example in avoiding accountability is copied throughout the hierarchy. For the latest in a long line of refusing to be accountable (think the IRS, VA, GAO, CDC, NSA et. al.), consider the OPM secretary’s recent avoidance of congressional questions about why she took no actions to protect federal employees’ identities when she had received advance and repeated warnings by her own Inspector General that danger existed. (Archuleta, for her part, has avoided taking the blame for the incident. “I don’t believe anyone is personally responsible,” she said of the data breach at this morning’s hearing. “If there’s anyone to blame, it’s the perpetrators,” Archuleta said.) http://www.nationaljournal.com/tech/even-behind-closed-doors-senators-aren-t-getting-their-opm-hack-questions-answered-20150624

Two Observations and Three Dysfunctions

Accountability is a hot topic. Instruction is plentiful: books, seminars and leadership articles abound. Gurus and thought leaders preach the obligation of accountability. When there is nothing to lose, leaders glibly preach and support accountability; but when there is blame to be had, fingers are raised and pointed. It seems that risk assessment and careful execution designed to ensure that nothing bad happened on a leader’s watch has now turned to “make sure there is no blame of me on my watch.”

First, before individuals can be accountable, they must first come to grips with their responsibilities and their obligation to at (authority). Accountability only exists around responsibility. Accountability can only be genuine if a person has the authority to fulfill their responsibility. Three dysfunctions occur:
• First, leaders want the “little people “ to be accountable when the leader is unwilling to delegate authority (yes, you can only delegate authority to act). Therefore, staff who could have done nothing to prevent or resolve a situation are expected to be accountable when things go wrong.
• Second, leaders often act as if their responsibility (and accountability) ends once decisions are made or orders are given. “Once it leaves my office, it belongs to others” is a common attitude. Leaders do not want to take responsibility for faulty implementation, unintended consequences, mediocre results or mistakes made beyond the reach of their desk. (This would cause my old first sergeant to turn over in his grave. He was constantly preaching that the “commander is responsible for everything the unit does or fails to do.” He knew that unless responsibility came first, accountability could never exist by itself. He also knew that if a decision was not implemented it was a failure regardless of intent. And he never took one course in management theory!)
• Third, why is accountability only addressed when something does not fulfill expectations? Does it not ever dawn on anyone that accountability also occurs when superior results are achieved? (Also called recognition!)

Second, accountability cannot be foisted on others. It is a gauntlet each person must be willing to pick up and apply to him or herself. A person cannot choose the situations, issues and opportunities that cross their paths but they can choose whether or not they will accept the responsibility to act and be accountable for their actions in response to those issues. True accountability occurs when a person accepts responsibility with the attitude of insuring a task is successful regardless of circumstances. Responsibility requires work is done to the best of one’s ability. A person can be lectured about accountability but words do not necessarily change one’s attitude.

All leaders must answer (that is what accountability means) for how they use their authority (power and influence to fulfill their responsibilities and obligations. (See https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140815135857-43121478-all-this-emphasis-on-accountability-shows-what-a-bad-leader-you-are?trk=mp-reader-card). The higher the level of the leader, the broader and deeper is their responsibility and therefore the broader and deeper their accountability to answer for actions taken or avoided by them or their subordinates. It is just as much a dereliction of duty to avoid issues and leave them for one’s predecessor, as it is to take a wrong or inappropriate action. That means the leader must be accountable, not only for what they did, but what they failed to do.

Accountability and the Little People
In today’s environment a culture of accountability is all the rage. But the emphasis is only on the “little people.” Leaders who are willing to be accountable like Chief Esserman are few and far between. Leaders who refuse to accept responsibility and accountability are the root cause of the employee dissatisfaction and leadership distrust we observe in many organizations. The “it’s not my fault” mentality is a key characteristic of leaders who are not in their positions to serve others through high quality products and services. Instead these leaders use their positions to enrich their reputations and pocketbooks and to position themselves for even higher positions and more power. Leaders who are untrusted and will not be accountable for past actions should not be allowed to continue in their positions or voted into those positions in the first place.

American’s are forgiving people. When a person fails (and we all do), it is not the unforgiveable sin. However, pointing fingers and deflecting criticism by blaming others is inexcusable. Claiming actions were appropriate nothing illegal has been done is even worse.

It is time for leaders to lead. It is time they demonstrate moral courage and decisiveness. It is time leaders accept responsibility for everything that happens on their watch regardless of the consequences. It is time they answer for how they use their authority to create and implement solutions to problems that plague us.

We Need To Expect And Demand Better

I, for one, am tired that only the little people are expected to be accountable when the example of our national leaders is just the opposite.