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Leadership Accountability – Part 1

Accountability, it’s kind of an uncomfortable word, isn’t it? Personally, it has never been a word that stirs up warm and fuzzy feelings when I hear it. My thoughts about accountability have run along the same lines as my thoughts about root canals… avoid if possible, can cause pain, but in the end…probably necessary and best for my health. 

In my early years as a leader, I tended to shy away, shall we say from those uncomfortable accountability conversations. Why? Because accountability conversations often imply that there is a problem, a failure, or a shortcoming. Who wants to talk about that? When was the last time you called someone into your office to have an accountability conversation just to say how great they are? Yeah, me neither.

And yet I am learning in my own personal pursuit of being a leader who desires to lead with integrity, and coaching others to do the same, that accountability is not something to avoid or fear, but to embrace and dare I say, enjoy? Ok, I may be pushing it a bit there… 

It may be a hard sell to convince anyone that difficult conversations are ever enjoyable but perhaps by the end of this 2-part series, I can at least get you to agree that although uncomfortable, a leader’s willingness to engage in accountability conversations are in the end not only necessary but will produce a healthier, stronger team, and make you a leader others want to follow!

First, let’s talk about what happens when a leader neglects to have accountability conversations on a team. For me, sometimes the most helpful way to discover the importance of living out a leadership value is when you look at the consequences of not doing it. Duh.

I have learned so much about accountability as a critical leadership value from the book High Impact Teams. In the book, the author Lance Witt, points out that there are 3 pitfalls that a leader can fall into when we avoid these critical accountability conversations.

The first is that we don’t get the desired results. Most of us have this quirk, ok it’s not a quirk it’s a major flaw, it’s called needing to be liked. Witt calls it “terminal niceness.” I like that. Not a horrible diagnosis, could be worse. This quality that many of us have, although lovely sounding, often gets in the way of us addressing what we know to be true and real! If you are in a leadership role, it will always and forever be your responsibility to speak truth into your team because results matter. If you are a leader who has been entrusted with a team, a project, a firm, anything that has resources and people, you are responsible for results. That means that there will be times when leaders will need to have the courage to speak up when things aren’t going well. Telling an employee or a team that everything is fine when it’s not is simply not going to get you the results you desire. We need to be honest with our employees and be willing to speak truth into a situation, especially in issues of non-performance. Remember the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result! Leaders need to courageously step in at times and say, “hey, we need to have talk and make some changes.” Yes, that’s harder than cheerleading, believe me, I get it, but if you desire a healthy team and care about results, having accountability conversations is a responsibility that a leader should never abdicate. 

The second pitfall that Witt points out is that when accountability goes missing it perpetuates dysfunction. He writes that “accountability is not just about performance and results, it’s also an emotional health and team health issue.” This is so true! Lack of accountability can quickly lead to a toxic culture on a team. When leaders are unwilling to have hard conversations, we end up tolerating bad behavior and that leads to a dysfunctional team.  In short, like any disease, dysfunction spreads. The bad behavior we tolerate in one employee will quickly have a ripple effect and we will find ourselves trying to manage not just the bad behavior of one employee but a whole team of knuckleheads. Leaders with integrity don’t wish things away or turn a blind eye when they see bad behavior, they put on their big boots, wade in the deep end and address it.

The third pitfall is the one that convicts me the most as a leader and that is that when we fail to hold people accountable it limits their growth and development. When I stop to think that my neglect in being willing to have an uncomfortable conversation could actually impede on someone’s growth and development, I start to sweat a little. Yikes. Here’s the thing; if leaders truly cared about those on our teams we will always do what is best for them even when its uncomfortable for us. Patrick Lencioni has something to say about this; he says, “Many leaders who struggle with this will try to convince themselves that their reluctance is a product of their kindness; (there it is again) they just don’t want to make their employees or team members feel bad. But an honest reassessment of their motivation will allow them to admit that they are the ones who don’t want to feel bad and that failing to hold someone accountable is ultimately an act of selfishness.”  Wow. Convicted. Lencioni is right. When we honestly look at why we are unwilling to hold people accountable isn’t it because we are preserving ourselves? We don’t want to be the “bad guy”. We want people to like us and we don’t want to be uncomfortable or make anyone feel uncomfortable. But here is the honest truth that leaders need to face up to; we are not helping people become the very best they can be personally and professionally when we don’t hold them accountable. Period. One final quote from Lencioni on this note, he says, “To hold someone accountable is to care about them enough to risk having them blame you for pointing out their deficiencies.”  

No one said leadership was easy. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart. It takes a whole lot of humility, courage, and discipline for those who desire to do it well. It is widely known that with authority comes great responsibility. Stay tuned for part 2 as we continue to explore the leadership value of accountability and offer some practical skills in managing the difficult accountability conversations with those on your team.

Your fellow leader on the journey,

Jen Bell


Lance Witt, High Impact Teams Where Healthy Meets High Performance  

Baker Books, Baker Publishing Group Grand Rapids Michigan Copyright 2018, p. 97-98

Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage; Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in the Business (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 59