The Leadership Playbook: Accountability and Consequences

Recently, I had a conversation with a person who told me that one of the leaders in her company led “with the stick.” His view was that a leader leads with something negative instead of positive. It would go too far to suggest that he was saying that this leader chose force, or manipulation because neither of those comes close to the truth. What this person was saying about the leader was that he holds people accountable.

Accountability means that you are responsible for producing some outcome. In order for accountability to work, there must be consequences. The consequences don’t need to be dire, like losing your job, but there must be consequences, otherwise, there is no accountability.

Leaders are accountable. It is part of the role and one that cannot be avoided. The best leaders embrace accountability, recognizing that the responsibility to produce a result is what empowers them to take actions that produce that result. What leaders are accountable for is a better future state. There may not be a greater responsibility.

The accountability for producing a result creates a cascade of accountabilities that reach lower levels of responsibility within a company. Because the leader is accountable, they hold their executive level team members accountable for producing results, empowering them to take action. But also empowering them to hold the people that work for them accountable for producing results necessary for moving the organization forward or producing some outcome. Because the leader cannot avoid accountability, no one at the lower levels can either.

Lately,  I’ve been listening to a lot of commentary on the problems with hierarchies. But there are two kinds of hierarchies, dominator hierarchies, and growth hierarchies. A dominator hierarchy will use force and manipulation to achieve the results, and the accountability for producing those results will not likely be a pleasant experience, nor will it likely occur in a culture that provides meaning or purpose in work. Accountability will feel completely different in a growth hierarchy. Instead of using power or force, the leaders will instead use inspiration and influence. They will care deeply about ensuring that the people they hold accountable have everything they need to succeed, including their continued support in their concern about the people they hold accountable individually.

One of the primary things a growth hierarchy expects in the way of accountability is personal and professional growth. It’s a nurturing environment where people have the opportunity to become the best version of themselves. But even in a growth hierarchy, accountability means consequences. In this case, it may mean retraining or reassignment. Growth hierarchies tend to care about individuals and take care of them. This allows them to create greater accountability because people have the psychological safety to accept responsibility-in whatever consequences come with them.

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