Having a sense of accountability is one of the most important qualities for a leader to possess, but it is often overlooked. Most people would say, “Of course, all leaders should be held accountable,” but when you start to break this concept down, what does it really look like? It’s easy to look at others and point out their shortcomings; it’s more challenging to analyze our own behavior.
To me, accountability starts with what Andy Stanley defines as moral authority. In his book Visioneering , he states that moral authority “is the credibility you earn by walking your talk.” When accountability is present, “There is alignment between conviction and action, belief and behavior,” Stanley writes. As leaders, our job is to inspire our teams to accomplish the company’s goals each day.
One of my former directors used to tell me that we were on stage every day in front of the staff. It didn’t mean that we had to “perform” or that we shouldn’t be authentic; it was a reminder that everyone was watching our actions to see if they aligned with what we said. The staff had to see us living our words every day for us to earn their trust. Trust is not something that is gained because of position; it is earned by aligning words and actions over time. Accountability is critical if we want to develop true influence.
When I initially learned about accountability in leadership, it seemed like a fairly simple concept. But, during the last year, several books I have read challenged me to look at it differently. Visioneering dared me to think about the conflict between accomplishing goals and compromising your moral authority. What filter do I use when making a decision? Am I looking at the end goal, or am I focused on the right way to do something? We make choices each day to get things done, but how we go about it is every bit as important as what we accomplish.
As I started to analyze accountability some more and understand the true importance of moral authority, I began to notice that we all have aspects of our worldview that influence our decisions, sometimes unconsciously. In his book Blind Spots: Why Good People Make Bad Choices , Kevin McCarthy defines blind spots as “those hidden biases, implicit associations, memory traps, and thinking errors that affect your behavior and decision-making.” He challenges us as leaders to get to know ourselves well and understand our motivations and thought processes. Each of us has different backgrounds, experiences, and personalities that frame our decision-making processes. Developing self-awareness about how these things can affect our decisions can help us avoid potential missteps.
Having an accountability partner or a mentor in your life can help you to continually analyze your decisions and motives. The key to finding the right person to partner with is to make sure he or she understands your values and what you consider to be most important. It is necessary to have someone you trust who can call you out on issues when needed and help you see things from a different perspective.
A couple of years ago, I was asked to sit on a national advisory board. I knew the timing wasn’t the best, but I really wanted to do it. When discussing this with one of my mentors, she brought me back to my long-term plans and challenged me to determine if this opportunity helped me further my goals. Examining the opportunity from a more critical perspective, I realized that accepting this position would have been a distraction and was not aligned with my priorities at the time, so I reluctantly declined. Although feedback like this can be challenging to consider, it is necessary to grow as a person and a leader. It also helps us avoid those blind spots in our lives that can lead us to make poor decisions.
Developing personal accountability takes intentional effort. In the book The Servant , James C. Hunter writes, “We must never dare to ask the people we lead to become the best they can be, to strive toward continuous improvement, unless we’re willing to grow and become the best we can be.” He examines the commitment on the part of the leader that this requires. It takes time to build moral authority and influence with people, and it can crumble in an instant. Surrounding yourself with people who have your best interests at heart and who will tell you the hard truths helps mitigate blind-spot risks. We’re all human and might not necessarily measure up to the standards that we want to meet on a daily basis, but being aware of the traps and striving to be accountable to ourselves and others will help keep us on the desired path.
Hayley Studer, CPA, FHFMA, is vice president, community partnerships for Credit Adjustments Inc. and is responsible for overseeing the company’s charitable division.