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Pillars of Success: Be Accountable

Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Gandhi.
H. Michael Burgett
Contributing Writer

Accountability stands as a fundamental principle that underpins effective leadership and personal growth. Regardless of industry, role, or career stage, the concept of accountability is universally applicable and can significantly impact both individual and collective outcomes.

Through historical examples and actionable insights, we can explore how accountability builds trust, improves performance, and mitigates risks. It serves as a foundational element for achieving success in any leadership role or personal endeavor.

Whether you are an established or emerging leader, a recent graduate or just contemplating your career journey, one should continually revisit the importance of accountability, its various dimensions in leadership, and practical steps for integrating this pillar of success into your professional and personal life.

The Essence of Accountability

At its core, accountability is the obligation to answer for one’s actions, decisions, and responsibilities. It serves as an ethical and moral compass that influences every choice we make. In the context of an organization, accountability is not merely an individual trait but a cultural characteristic that should be present at all levels—from the executive suite to the front lines.

Why is Accountability Important?

  1. Building Trust: One of the most significant benefits of accountability is the trust it fosters among team members and stakeholders. Trust is built on reliability, and accountability is a key component of being reliable.
  2. Improving Performance: When individuals know they will be held responsible for their actions, they are more inclined to perform at their highest level. This not only enhances individual output but also contributes to organizational success.
  3. Mitigating Risks: Organizations that prioritize accountability are better at identifying and resolving issues quickly. This proactive approach helps in minimizing the impact of problems and reduces the likelihood of crises.

Dimensions of Accountability in Leadership

Decision Ownership

One of the most compelling examples of decision ownership comes from history, specifically from General Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II. Before the D-Day invasion, Eisenhower prepared two notes. One was to announce the success of the operation, and the other was to take full responsibility in case the invasion failed. The latter note, which he kept in his pocket, read: “Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”

“General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander” by Marion Doss is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Fortunately, the invasion was successful, and the note was never used. However, the very act of writing it demonstrates the essence of decision ownership that is central to accountability. Eisenhower was prepared to take full responsibility for his choices, good or bad, without shifting the blame onto his subordinates or external factors.

In leadership roles, this level of accountability is crucial. It involves standing by your decisions related to strategy, team management, and resource allocation. When outcomes don’t align with expectations, it’s essential to learn from the situation, make the necessary adjustments, and move forward. The key is to own both your successes and failures, just as Eisenhower was prepared to do.

By embracing this level of decision ownership, leaders not only earn the respect and trust of their team members but also create a culture where accountability is valued and expected. It sets a precedent that encourages everyone in the organization to take responsibility for their actions, thereby contributing to collective success.

Informed Choices

In October 1962, President John F. Kennedy faced one of the most significant challenges of his presidency: the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States had discovered that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The stakes were incredibly high, and the wrong decision could have led to nuclear war.

Kennedy assembled a group of advisors and experts, known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), to evaluate the situation and consider various courses of action. The options ranged from doing nothing to full-scale invasion. Kennedy encouraged open debate and discussion among his advisors, sought information from multiple sources, and even reached across the aisle to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

After careful deliberation, Kennedy opted for a naval blockade of Cuba, a decision that was informed by extensive data, expert opinions, and thorough risk assessment. The blockade eventually led the Soviet Union to remove its missiles from Cuba, thus averting a catastrophic conflict.

This event exemplifies the importance of making well-informed decisions as a part of being accountable. Kennedy didn’t act on impulse or rely solely on his own judgment; instead, he gathered as much information as possible, consulted with experts, and weighed the pros and cons before making a critical decision.

In leadership, this level of diligence is essential for accountability. It involves doing the necessary research, consulting with knowledgeable individuals, and carefully considering the implications of each option. By making informed choices, leaders can better justify their decisions and stand accountable for the outcomes, whether they are positive or negative.

By incorporating this approach into your leadership style, you not only make more effective decisions but also foster a culture of accountability and responsibility. It sends a clear message that every decision must be thought through carefully, thereby setting a standard for the entire organization to follow.

Ethical Conduct

In the early 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi faced a monumental challenge: leading India’s struggle for independence from British rule. The stakes were high, as the movement had the potential to either liberate millions or plunge the country into chaos and violence. Gandhi had various strategies at his disposal, ranging from armed resistance to diplomatic negotiations.

Gandhi convened with advisors, intellectuals, and leaders of the Indian National Congress to discuss the best course of action. He encouraged open dialogue and even sought counsel from different schools of thought, including both proponents and critics of non-violence.

After much contemplation, Gandhi chose the path of non-violent civil disobedience, a decision deeply rooted in ethical considerations. He believed that independence achieved through violence would not be morally sustainable. His choice was informed by a thorough understanding of the social fabric of India, the ethics of non-violence, and the potential long-term consequences of the movement.

Mahatma Feo (Gandhi’s portrait remix)” by The PIX-JOCKEY (visual fantasist) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

This decision to opt for non-violence over more confrontational methods exemplifies the importance of ethical conduct as a part of being accountable. Gandhi did not make this critical choice lightly or impulsively; he consulted widely, weighed the ethical implications, and considered the long-term impact before making his decision.

In leadership, this level of ethical scrutiny is crucial for accountability. It involves not just making decisions that are effective but also those that are ethically sound. By incorporating this approach into your leadership style, you send a clear message that ethical considerations are not secondary but central to decision-making, thereby setting a high moral standard for the entire organization to follow.

Practical Steps to Instill Accountability

  1. Clarify Expectations: The first step in fostering accountability is to set clear and achievable expectations. This should be done in a transparent manner, ensuring that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities.
  2. Regular Monitoring and Feedback: Use performance metrics and regular evaluations to monitor progress. This not only helps in identifying areas for improvement but also provides an opportunity for constructive feedback.
  3. Lead by Example: The best way to instill accountability in a team is for leaders to model it themselves. When leaders demonstrate accountability, it sets a precedent for the entire team to follow.
  4. Open Communication Channels: Create a work environment where open communication is encouraged. This will enable team members to discuss their challenges and successes freely, thereby fostering a culture of accountability.
  5. Recognition and Rewards: Positive reinforcement can go a long way in promoting accountability. Recognize and reward individuals who consistently demonstrate this trait, as it will motivate others to act similarly.
  6. Training and Development: Offer training programs focused on accountability and personal responsibility. This not only equips team members with the tools they need but also signals the organization’s commitment to fostering accountability.

The Wrap

Accountability is a foundational element for achieving success in any leadership role and personal endeavor. By understanding its importance, recognizing its various dimensions, and taking practical steps to instill it, you can significantly enhance both your individual performance and organizational effectiveness.

The journey towards accountability is ongoing, but the rewards—increased trust, improved performance, and minimized risks—are well worth the effort.

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