If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month. -Theodore Roosevelt
In nearly every leadership workshop I have facilitated over the past 30 years the issues of Responsibility and Accountability are acknowledged as key to successful leadership at all levels. However, when we get into the discussion, or better yet when we explore some real examples of project failures (and successes), I discover that there is usually a very fuzzy understanding of these two important concepts. And it’s not so much the definitions I am concerned about, but more importantly the behaviours behind these two words. And as we all know, behaviour drives results, and lack of results as well.
So, let’s see if I can’t clarify the meaning and use of these two key leadership principles. In my mind, they are significantly different and yet both are important for successful leadership, and successful projects as well.
Responsibility I define as:
My specific organizational duties, as agreed to between my supervisor and myself, including the extent of my organizational authority as spelled out in company policy.
Every organisation has roles and tasks that need to be accomplished in order to reach it’s overall objectives. And more often than not these roles are assigned to an individual and the expected outcomes are clearly articulated in the form of objectives, KPIs, performance goals, etc. Vice President A has one set of defined responsibilities, VP B another, and so on. The problem with defining responsibilities is that we can never get them accurate enough so that there are no gaps between functions or groups within an organisation. There are always gaps, and that’s where the principle of accountability becomes so important.
Accountability I define as:
The manner in which I carry out my leadership and business responsibilities, which can include a range of behaviours, from “blaming and gaming” to “Whatever it takes” behaviors.
If responsibility is the engine, accountability is the fuel. Those who focus on their responsibilities ask a lot of “what” questions. What is expected of my department? What is the extent of my authority? Those who understand the principle of accountability focus more on “How” than on “What”. How should we approach this difficult project? How do I coach a non-performer to best help her win? How questions invite participation and focus energy, insights and action.
A high-performance leadership team understands the differences between responsibility and accountability and put both to work in leading the organisation forward.
Below is the way I tend to draw this concept out during our leadership workshops. In this illustration, accountability is the behaviour that bridges the gaps on the organisation chart and fills in with action when the responsibility charters get fuzzy.
Tight Lines . . .
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