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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Flunking the accountability test

Q: Pope Benedict XVI's efforts to deal with the Church's sex scandal raises this question: Can a leader hold managers to account on an issue where his own past performance is in question?

Accountability is a cornerstone of organizational cohesiveness. A sense of accountability holds people responsible for performance and for results. Accountability lies at the root of leadership authenticity. A leader who does not hold himself accountable will find it difficult to lead others.

Leadership provides a foundation for effective management: the operational rigor - processes, policies, and people - that ensure the running of an organization. Accountability underscores management because it is how employees get things done right and done on time. A manager who is sloppy in his administration can hold people accountable for their results but we should not be surprised if those results are not forthcoming. That is, when management is loose, results will be sketchy, too.

While management is administrative, leadership is aspirational. It focuses on what must be done to ensure that the organizational and its people succeed. Accountability is essential because such leadership calls for the leader to make hard and tough decisions. A leader who is not accountable to the organization will act self-interestedly (or for a select few) rather than doing what the organization needs him or her do: stand up for what is right even when it is hard to do.

Ironically when those in authority are seeking to protect their organization by failing to acknowledge responsibility, they merely look weak. We saw this problem unfold in many corporate scandals. All too often senior leaders adopted the "dumb guy" defense when speaking about their role in financial wrong doing. When held accountable by the justice systems, once-proud executives act as if they were the dupes; they feign innocence and blame others for their travails. In reality it was the senior executives who betrayed the trust of employees and shareholders. And fortunately most courts, including that of public opinion, held them accountable and sent them to jail.

Executives who fail to hold themselves accountable also harm the credibility of their organizations. In the financial meltdown of 2008, senior leaders who claimed no responsibility brought their companies to the brink of disaster. Reputation for fiscal sanity went out the window. Executives who flunk the accountability test betray the stakeholders who pay them.

As much as accountability is considered essential to leadership, curiously we see avoidance of responsibility as the norm. So much so that when a leader stands up and says that the buck stops here, we laud the person for his accepting blame. That's fine, but it's what leaders should be doing every day. So celebrating a leader for admitting a mistake should not strike us as unusual. It should be the norm.

Let's be honest. Leaders are not superhuman; they are subject to the temptations that face all mortals. They will make mistakes. But when they do, they would do themselves and their organizations a huge favor by admitting it rather than seeking to cover it up. There are few things as spineless as those pretending to be what they are not. Hypocrisy does not become hubris.

That does not mean leaders need to confess all personal failings in public. They only need to come clean about things that affect the health and performance of the organization as a whole. In short, they should heed the words of Socrates who said: "The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to be."

Accountability matters. Not simply to the leaders but more so to the people in the organization. If there is a good that comes from organization betrayal it is this. Members of the organization learn to fend for themselves. Organizations that succeed and many do, find that people in the middle rise up and assume new levels of responsibility. These people become the ones that lead the organization and in the process make the organization whole again.

By John Baldoni

 |  March 30, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Category:  Religious leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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These comments convince me why an all-volunteer military can never be more than mediocre.Accountability is diffuse or non-existent,in practice, not in theory.

Posted by: theopaine | March 30, 2010 10:01 AM
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