“I Swear By Apollo”
Being Accountable to Yourself In Leadership“I swear by Apollo”… so starts the Oath of Hippocrates, an oath of ethical, professional behavior sworn by all new physicians – a promise to practice good medicine to the best of their ability, for the good of their patients. It essentially boils down to a commitment to “do no harm”. Wouldn’t it be great to have such an oath for leaders – an oath of personal accountability, not just for business outcomes and for leading others, but for leading oneself. I am reminded of the proverb “Physician, heal thyself”, suggesting that one should take care of one’s own faults first before correcting the faults of others – so I add to the above: Leader, lead thyself.
Any nuts-and-bolts leadership primer will explain that one of the key leadership competencies is holding others accountable. This entails, among other things, setting clear expectations and guidelines, clearly communicating goals and objectives, following up to ensure fulfillment of responsibilities, providing feedback on performance, coaching those whose performance is not up to par and, finally, taking any necessary corrective action. But a leader cannot expect to hold others accountable successfully if they are not holding themselves accountable first.
While this is an important dimension of leadership, it is easy to slip, when it comes to accountability for our own behavior. This can happen even to leaders who do a great job at holding themselves accountable for the big ticket items such as driving for results, whether in sales, operations, marketing or financing, identifying root causes for business problems, developing a vision and strategy and managing resources effectively.
Let’s clarify something before we proceed: no leader worth his salt wakes up in the morning deciding that he or she is not going to be accountable today. No one wants to do a bad job. But things happen during the course of the day that can divert the best of us from our good intentions and more often than not, it is unintentional, personal “slips”. It is about these seemingly innocuous personal slips that I want to talk. They take many, subtle forms. Let’s explore a few of the garden-variety ones:
- You have a chronic problem employee but you don’t make the tough decision to let the individual go, because you want to be a nice person. Instead, after much deliberation and agony, you decide to transfer the person to another department – essentially moving the problem to another part of the company and hoping it goes away. Deep down, your intuition is whispering to you that the problem has not been solved but, in your elation at having found the solution to a nagging problem, you hush your intuition. You come to the office the next day, with a spring in your step and a song in your heart – relieved at having shed a burden.
- A senior member of your team has a habit of treating less influential ones very poorly in meetings, interrupting them, discounting their contributions and generally exhibiting poster-like bad behavior. It mortifies the recipients, embarrasses other team members and even bothers you. Again, though, because you value harmony and hate confrontation of any kind, you choose to ignore the offending behavior and hope that it will stop on its own. The fact that the perpetuator is an aggressive, high achiever, successfully delivering results, makes it even harder for you to step up and do something.
- You have just announced the company’s drastic cost cutting measures and asked for everyone in your department to cooperate by eliminating all discretionary spending. You delivered a genuinely inspiring speech to your team and everyone is on board to make this work. Two days later, employees see a $1,000 chair delivered to your office – an earlier purchase you had genuinely forgotten to cancel. Others, of course, don’t judge us by our intentions – they only have the appearance of events to judge you by.
- A mistake was made, the ownership of which falls on several shoulders including yours. Driven by the anxiety and chaos that ensues, you minimize your role in the fracas, and even unwittingly suffer from temporary corporate amnesia, forgetting that you were fully briefed in advance. You set out to find a scapegoat, genuinely convincing yourself that it is surely their fault. This can easily happen in times of stress because, as a leader, you handle dozens of issues on a daily basis. However, others involved only handle a few issues and remember the course of events with laser-like precision.
Well, the list can go on. Some slips are due to personality preferences, others just from the sheer amount of work and stress that leaders often experience. The reasons are multiple and really not important. It’s the behaviors that are important.
They are all examples of behaviors you would not condone in others when you set out to hold them accountable. And as we all know, when there is a disparity between what you tell others to do and what you do yourself, people will believe your actions and not your words. The fallout of this scenario is an erosion of trust, one of the high prices we pay for lack of self-accountability.
Let’s also not neglect to mention that, as a leader, you sometimes have to take unpopular decisions and this can, by itself, elicit criticism. You are always in a fishbowl.
So what strategies can you adopt to be more careful, to be self-accountable – essentially to report to yourself?
- Just as companies are rightfully concerned about how they are viewed by customers or shareholders, consider taking time to reflect on how your actions are viewed by all stakeholders: your direct reports, your peers, your clients. Go through a formal 360 Leadership Assessment process or simply get hold of a leadership assessment form and use it to reflect on how others in your team would rate you on each dimension.
For example: Puts the interests of the team before own interests; Shares credit for successes; Readily shares relevant information; Asks how am I doing; Treats others with respect regardless of their position; Fosters teamwork across all departments; Stands behind decisions made by the team; Provides honest feedback in a timely basis. Would others respond in this way about you?
- At the end of each day, when you clear your desk before you head home, take a few short minutes to mentally go over your day. Think about significant conversations you held, meetings you attended, emails you sent and other actions you undertook.
Are you proud? Could you have done better? This will inspire you to plan your next day around your highest purpose. Getting into this habit of introspection will pay dividends in the long run.
- Decide to hold yourself accountable for developing other leaders. By mentoring a protégé to enhance their personal and professional growth, you strengthen your own leadership skills and reinforce your determination to be self-accountable as you become the model.
- When something goes wrong, look inwardly for solutions. It is especially in difficult times that our self-accountability is challenged. Martin Luther King said it poignantly: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
- When a mistake is made, do you ask: “Whose fault is it?” or do you say: “What can we learn from this?” or “What can I do to improve this situation?”
To that end, consider reading John G. Miller’s book: QBQ! The Question behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability in Work and in Life. Reading the book inspires one to move away from the blame game we have all been tempted to play at one time or other and take ownership of issues.
- Think about promises you make to new hires during the interviewing courtship period. In our zeal to want to attract the brightest and most talented, we can easily over promise. Keep a record of your interview notes and what you promised to candidates. If subsequent events make it impossible to keep the promises, at least you can address them with the individual. This is better than forgetting about them altogether.
- What about promises you made to yourself? Write out your personal and professional goals with clear targets. Read them once a week. Are your day-to-day action aligned with your values, your standards, your philosophy of leading? What are your boundaries? Do you take measures to protect them? If your answers to these questions are negative, what is causing this? What insights does this give you? Use this information as a means to spur you to action rather than guilt.
- Moliere, 17th century French dramatist, said: “It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.” Is there anything that you are avoiding doing that needs to be done? For example, are you putting off a difficult conversation? Are you delaying any important decisions? Are you delegating away responsibilities that should stay in your court?
Self-accountability, then, is staying true to ourselves despite difficult circumstances. It’s doing the right thing even when we are tempted to bend a few rules for expediency’s sake. Perhaps Deborah Lee put it best: “Self-accountability is who you are when no one is looking”. It’s also the best antidote to feeling victimized by circumstances and in so doing, frees up precious creative energy for us to accomplish what matters to us. Above all, it entails owning up to the consequences of our decisions and choices, because there is no choice without accountability.