From Episode #62 of The Complete Leader Podcast

Personal accountability is where most begin their leadership journey.

It’s one of the ways you begin to grow your own leadership brand with the things that others believe about you—especially about what people believe of your ability to follow through on what you said you were going to do, your ability to take responsibility and not blame others, and your ability to accept feedback from others. In becoming a complete leader, personal accountability is one of the most important aspects of how leaders lead themselves.

When I work with clients on personal accountability, I often hear leaders say, “Yes, we absolutely need to bring more accountability to the organization.”

I like to follow that up with this question: “Does that mean you need to be more accountable?”

Of course, their answer is almost always, “No, no, no, it’s not about me, it’s about everybody else,” which is also the first sign that you can likely grow more personal accountability.

What is personal accountability?

When you were young, accountability often meant doing something you didn’t want to do. In reality, it’s not so much a negative word as a neutral word—it just often gets employed in a negative context so that you feel like being accountable is equal to being “called on the carpet.”

I define accountability as a measure of the capacity to be answerable for your personal actions. Sometimes those are good actions that caused a great result, and sometimes those are actions that didn’t get the result you were looking for, and you must be willing to take the responsibility for it. The opposite of it can be referred to as blame, defend, and deny—where you blame other people for something, defend yourself and say it’s not your fault, and deny that the event even happened.

If it’s a blame game, it is hard to refuse to be a victim and take responsibility because you want to protect yourself and your ego. But if it’s about responsibility rather than blame, you can accept the responsibility of failing to achieve the goal. You can refuse to be a victim and refuse give your power away to the circumstances.

As a senior leader it’s important to remember you’re not judged based on your efforts or intentions. You’re judged based on your results, and that’s part of what being answerable for the consequences of your actions is. It’s one of the funny dichotomies of true personal accountability—you let other people judge the good or the bad of what you did. You let other people say, “You did everything you could have even though we didn’t get the results,” or “You should’ve overcome those obstacles.” You really give the authority to judge your leadership abilities away to others—one of the many reasons personal accountability is often the beginning of your journey as a leader.

How do you grow personal accountability?

Personal accountability is both a character trait and a learned skill. The first is the commitment or aspiration to be governed by a value in the way you behave. The second is learning how to build it as a capacity and as a character trait in practical ways—not simply deciding you want to be more accountable. There are four steps to begin developing this crucial leadership competency.

Write down the commitments you make—both to yourself and to others. Keeping an accountability notebook not only allows you to see how many commitments you’re making, but you can also score yourself on how well you followed through. Many people struggle with accountability simply because they are so busy. There’s too much going on and you try to satisfy too many people. The reality is, whether you’re keeping your own score or not, others are. Don’t wait for them to come tell you that you don’t do a very good job of following through. Write down your promises and score yourself. It will help you hold yourself more accountable rather than only saying you want to be a more accountable leader.

Practice balance. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Recognizing that every time you say, “Yes, I’ll do this,” or “No, I won’t do that,” is a demonstration of your character based on whether or not you follow through. You have to learn to balance your commitments so that you can follow through on what you say you’ll do, even when it means saying no to somebody higher than you in the organization. You have to learn how to negotiate that to help them understand what’s realistic. Otherwise, it’s unfair to them for you to say yes when you know you can’t execute and for you to say no without offering the opportunity for understanding.

Use your self-management skills. How you exercise self-control and how you organize and execute your priorities are critical building blocks in increasing your personal accountability skills. Remember, it’s both a character trait—a value you aspire to govern your behaviors by—and a learned skill—where you practice getting better and better over time. Your self-management skills can contribute here.

Ask a trusted advisor for feedback. This is a very simple, practical step that can help you see how well you’re doing in developing personal accountability. Sometimes you have to let others be your mirror because they often see you better than you see yourself. Find those who you know care about your success and periodically ask them to give you feedback on whether you are following through on your commitments or if you have developed a reputation of being less dependable.

Personal accountability and the other skills needed to be an effective and complete leader are not abilities you master at one point in time and move on. These are areas of constant practice and learning, and even I have to consistently work to build new personal accountability skills. Begin the journey with these four steps and you’ll be on your way to more accountable leadership.

Header image Photo by Sora Shimazaki