A Leader’s Accountability; The 3 Keys to Taking Responsibility Like a Leader!

Leadership is a BIG word filled with so many other words… such as influence, impact, vision, expectations, and more! Over the years, there are two words I’ve found that are typically left out the leadership conversation and they are “Protection” and “Accountability”… without these two, our Leadership is lacking and incomplete! Protection is a daily leadership skill related to protecting your people from themselves, protecting your people from YOU, protecting your time, and sometimes protecting your people from other leaders, coworkers, or customers/clients. However, this article is about ACCOUNTABILITY… which is more of a personal leadership trait. This trait takes a bad leader to good, a good one to great, and a great one out of this world! It’s the willingness and ability to humble oneself and accept 100% of the responsibility when things go wrong, for your mistake, and the mistakes of your team!

When my son said he wanted to play quarterback, the first thing I said to him was, “Can you give all the credit away in a win and accept it all in a loss?”. “Can you accept blame after a bad game with a microphone in your face, be accountable, and bounce back quicker than everyone else?”. “If not, the Top Spot isn’t for you!”. The same goes for you as a leader! You, I, we are guaranteed to make our share of mistakes and we get to set the tone of our company culture when we do!

I remember vividly a few of my biggest professional mistakes. When I was promoted to lead a team of Mental Health Therapist, one of my new administrative tasks was to ensure we received accurate payment for each client. The funny thing is that anyone who knows me knows that connection and communication are my superpowers… NOT organization! Inevitably I made a HUGE mistake that cost the company $40,000… a BIG number for a smaller company. I was wrong, there was no way to get it back, and I had the choice of being accountable or not. Another time, I lost my cool in the hallway with my Boss… and although I was right about everything I said, I was so wrong about where I said it. Lastly, when I transitioned into sales, a family was excited to make a huge order… long story short, I made one mistake that messed up the timing of their delivery, lost the sale, and more importantly ruined a great and exciting experience for them. I could go on, but you get the point! Chances to accept accountability will arise; as you will eventually make a mistake leading to a “Tough Conversation” and what you do, and how you do it will speak volumes about your Personal Leadership & Leadership Skills and impact your Work/Life Harmony… So, how do you do it?

The 3 Bullies!

Leadership and Accountability aren’t for the weak… and when the time comes to accept responsibility, it may come in three major forms:

  1. You thought you were right, but were wrong!
  2. You knew you were wrong and got called out!
  3. Or, someone on your Team made a mistake, you were aware or unaware, but have to fall on the sword!

In either case, there are always 3 Bullies to beware of and defeat as a Leader: Minimization, Justification, & Rationalization! Each of these bullies allows you to evade blame, make it seem not that bad, or put it on someone else. Does that sound like leadership? Of course, someone else could have been at fault; however that’s not where leaders start… so let’s get into The 3 Bullies!

Minimization a person trivializes their mistake or makes the mistake seem small!

Bully Words such as “Just” and “Only” tend to get used here. “It was just a $40,000.00 mess up; I don’t see what the big deal is”. “I was only late two times.” “It was just one order I messed up.” No, a $40.000.00 mistake is someone’s annual salary at some places… and it may not mean you lose your job, but another person may lose theirs to off-set your mistake… Be Mindful! Being late three times, may have cost your organization a deal and an ongoing relationship with an important client… Be Mindful! That messed up order was a disappointing blow to a family moving out of state, expecting their furniture to be there on time… instead they get to move in and sit in an empty house for two weeks. Yes, a First-World Problem, but a disappointment and problem nonetheless!

Justification a person attempts to provide an acceptable reason for their action or reaction. Think of it as “tit for tat”; and any time I hear tit for tat; all I vision are children engaged in an argument, which certainly isn’t leadership!

Bully words such as “If/Then” tend to get used here. If he/she does this then I’ll do that! “If she gets to come back late from her lunch break then so will I!”.  If they don’t have to come in early, then neither do I!”. “If they can make that mistake, then so can I!”. This is a dangerous minefield for so many Leaders and Front-Line Employees because it possesses great points, makes the initiator of the tough conversation anxious, and the receiver of the tough conversation seem more righteously-right! However, in our new world or employee-flexibility, hybrid-work, and remote work… everyone may not be held to the same accord, work-schedule, etc.

I’m honored to present Leadership Traingings worldwide for C-Suite & Middle Management and sometimes their Front-Line… and this is one issue that inevitably arises. I get to train Leaders on how to respond to Employee Justification and Front-Line on how to view the numerous perspectives of their Leadership Team and Coworkers. Perhaps their coworker is granted permission to come in late because their parent is ill and they have to wait for the nurse get to their home before they can leave. Perhaps their coworker made a $40,000 mistake but also brought in $500,000 that year. Although the Justifier may want equality amongst the rules and treatment… I’m sure you may not wish for the personal or professional problems and responsibilities of all of your coworkers… Be Mindful!

Rationalization a person accounts for their mistakes or negative behavior by blaming someone or something else.

For example, “I’m in a bad mood because I couldn’t get my coffee this morning!”. “I was late again due to traffic”… knowing traffic doesn’t change much. You know what time the school buses dominate the road in your area or what roads tend to back up. This is a reasonable excuse the first time or two; not the 15th! In my professional past as a leader within a Mental Health Facility, I rationalized staying in my office more and shutting my door because I had so much paperwork to do. The truth was I lost respect for the organization due to leadership changes, the new volatile nature of the building, and had burnt-out. The building needed my leadership, however I had no more to give and was as much a problem as anyone or anything else due to my disappearing act!

Know you know the 3 Bullies, and awareness is the first key! When you hear yourself say these trigger statements or words… STOP, Gather Yourself, and do Key #2!

The Accountability Golden Rules!

At some point, we all will make a mistake and be approached by a boss, a coworker, an employee, significant other, or our kids for a “Tough Conversation”! After being aware of The 3 Bullies, it’s important to know these Golden Rules for accountability:

  1. The person approaching you to have the “Tough Conversation” would rather NOT! In all honesty, your boss, coworker, or employee may be more anxious than you and wishes you were doing the job correctly so they don’t have to approach you; allowing them to focus on the thousand other things on their list. Your significant other or your kids don’t want to hurt your feelings, strain the relationship, and ruin Thanksgiving Dinners for the rest of their lives. The fact anyone comes to you to have a tough conversation means they care enough about you, your potential, the bigger vision and picture, and are brave enough to put themselves out there to make things better. Looking at it this way tends to soften the blow of accepting accountability!
  2. When things can only be “Good” if no one in your life can approach you or can hold you accountable; the bigger issue is YOU and that’s not Leadership… Be Mindful! Giving and accepting feedback is a part of leadership. We can always come back to focus on how feedback is given, how it’s received, and how you prefer to be approached… but if no one can ever give it at all, that’s an issue! This leads us to Golden Rule #3
  3. The Leader’s Blueprint! Leaders tend to say their people can come to them with anything and they have an open-door policy. However, most leaders fail to tell their people HOW to come to them; providing them a blueprint of how to effectively share ideas or challenge them in a way they are more apt to listen and digest!

The Leader’s Blueprint also applies to accepting accountability as well. It’d be silly to think we’re never going to make a mistake; therefore, let’s make it easier for our bosses or coworkers to approach to have a tough conversation. It may sound something like, “I’m excited to work on ___ and will do my best. If there’s ever a time you have an issue, questions about my work, or I’ve made a mistake, please feel free to let me know. You can get in touch with me best via ____, let me know what the issue is, any feedback you have, and I’ll be sure to get back to you that same day. I’ll do my best to work it out that day or if we have to get on a call or face-to-face I’m always up for making that happen”. Feel free to use your own words… the most important part is to follow the format: Preface a mistake may be made one day, your willingness to accept feedback, the method of contact to best reach you, and your willingness to correct the issue!

NO, it will not always play out so cleanly and YES, some people will confront you in an abrupt and harsh manner; however, accountability is more about YOU than THEM… and that leads us to the final Key, how to effectively apologize like a leader!

Note: I am in no way suggesting you tolerate professional abuse. I teach Empathic Leadership, not Soft Leadership! When someone is professionally abusive (yelling, screaming, name-calling, physically threatening, etc.) it’s always important to state this is not OK, you prefer to be spoken to in a professional manner, allow them an opportunity to modify, and if not… report as necessary; as this is most likely not their first time! After your nerves have calmed… Leaders always reflect on “What was that person right about?”. When you only focus on how something was said, instead of the validity of their argument, you will righteously stay stuck and minimize, justify, and rationalize your part in the situation… Be Mindful!

A Leader’s Apology!

If accountability is a part of leadership, isn’t it only right to apologize? Yes, I agree with the “Thank you for your patience” instead of “I’m sorry I’m late” we’ve all learned. However, there’s power in an apology and you don’t have to lose your power just because you apologize… when it’s done like a leader!

Think about it, if someone said something that hurt you… would you like them to say, “Thanks for your ability to take want I dished out and not make it a big deal” or would you like them to say, “I’m sorry I lost my cool and said things to you that way. I was having a rough day and I let it out on you; it won’t happen again. When I do have tough things to address regarding work, how would you like me to come to you?”. That’s much better, right? So, how to apologize like a Leader?

  1. Know Your Patterns Leaders anticipate being approached by someone eventually regarding conflicting viewpoints or mistakes made. Know YOUR patterns when confronted. Some people go into Defend & Deflect Mode right off the bat, some curl up in a ball and cry, some take in information and ruminate over it for a year. Whatever you do, know your pattern so you can do less of anything negative and work to improve your pattern to improve the issue and best the Team and Organization!
  2. Understanding The Opposition Remember, the person sharing this news with you would prefer not to and would rather there be no issue at all. Also, they most likely want the best for you, themselves, the team, and the organization. So, whatever the issue, it’s in the way of that occurring!
  3. Validate Since you, we and I aren’t going to minimize, justify, or rationalize… the question becomes, “What are they right about?”. What is the person holding you accountable right about?
  4. Your Plan Leaders accompany their problems with a suggested solution. Therefore, what’s your proposed plan to best address the issue. My favorite way to share is… “I have an idea that I believe will help with ___, I’d like to hear what you like about it and anything you’d fine-tune or change.”
  5. The Actual Apology A Leader’s Apology has no “Should’s”, “Just’s or Only’s”, no “I Deserve’s”, and certainly no “But’s” and may sound like this… “I’m sorry about my mistake on _____. That’s not like me and it won’t happen again. I have an idea that may make things better, I’d like to hear what you like about it or anything you’d fine-tune or change”.

I’ve had the pain and privilege to use these concepts for years and I’m happy to say they’ve worked phenomenally for me both professionally and personally enhancing my Leadership & Work/Life Harmony! However, that does not mean you will always get the response you desire from your boss, employees, coworkers, or others.

Accountability and Apologies aren’t about the other person… they are about you! In the face of accepting accountability, the other person’s response will expose who they really are… and you will have a decision to make. My decision has been to stand still, accept responsibility, and to move forward doing the right thing for my future with a positive attitude. Be Mindful… things can be tense after accepting accountability within the relationship for the person who approached you and for you after receiving such feedback. If pouting, gossip, isolating, and/or sabotaging behaviors occur afterward… not only is it poor leadership; it’s bad for business and relationships! When both parties can DO their best, Be their Best, Greet one another, and provide the After-Feedback-Care in the form of gossiping good about one another and the job… it’s amazing how the relationship and the culture will EVOLVE!

“When things can only be “Good” if no one in your life can approach you or hold you accountable; the bigger issue is YOU, and that’s not Leadership… Be Mindful!”    – Andre Young

Written by: Andre Young

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