Responsibility and Accountability . . .

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 . . .

John R Childress

E |      T | +44 207 584 3774      M | +44 7833 493 999

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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2 Responses to Responsibility and Accountability . . .

  1. Pingback: A Test for Accountability . . . | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

  2. Pingback: A Test for Accountability . . . | Principia Blog: Rethinking Leadership

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