Our society loves buzzwords. Many people often gravitate to speaking the language of the latest trend or fad, while attempting to capitalize on those words in a variety of ways. As I sat with this thought, I began to focus on some of the words that circulate in my circles and conversations – resilience, strength, capacity, decisions, accountability. That was it – accountability. I could not move away from this word and therefore challenged myself to explore my thoughts more deeply. I, like many of you reading this article, have heard this word hundreds of times throughout my professional career, so much so, that it’s true meaning and intent has often gotten muddled in the mundane mélange of buzzwords.
Accountability – the fact or condition of being accountable.
Accountable – an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.
As leaders, we find ourselves in a pivotal position of balance between our organization, the people that we serve within that organization, and the climate of the culture at large. I will briefly explore each of these as a foundation for my thoughts.
First, the organization. Whether in a corporate, nonprofit, or military environment, as leaders we have agreed to not only support the organization but to uphold the standards and regulations of the organization in a manner that we hope will lead to continued success, growth, and forward movement of the mission and goals.
Second, the people that we serve within the organization. As leaders, we not only uphold the tenets of the organization, but we guide, mentor, and support people within the context of the mission and vision. We lead by example. We set the standard and help others along the journey.
And finally, the climate of the culture at large. As a representative of the organization and leader of the people in the organization, there is a requisite to balance the needs of the organization and our service to the people within the context of culture. It is important to weigh the tone of our leadership through the lens of societal issues that affect the organization as a whole, and more importantly, the people in that organization.
So, you may be asking, “What does this have to do with accountability?” I’m so glad you asked. I’ll share a brief story to further illustrate my thoughts.
I can remember being brand-new in the violence prevention program teaching bystander intervention training to a group of Airmen. After going through the curriculum that gave individuals practical applications for intervening and supporting others in community, one of the younger Airmen approached me with a question. He wanted to know why we (leaders, the organization) placed so much emphasis on individuals being bystanders, but we offered very little information on the outcome of those efforts. He said, “Ma’am, where are the statistics to show us the percentage of those who have been held accountable for their actions?” He was referencing those who committed acts of interpersonal violence such as sexual assault, stalking, harassment, and domestic violence. He, like many others, had heard that getting involved never made a difference because individuals were rarely held accountable for their actions. So, what was the point of getting involved?
At that time, I did not have what I believed to be an adequate answer for him and admittedly, I felt somewhat embarrassed. As a leader in an organization, I was encouraging him to intervene and be a good wingman, yet I was unable to satisfactorily explain the outcomes of said interventions and speak to his perceived injustices. I struggled with the accountability factor.
Since then, this point of accountability has continued as a theme in my thought processes. Given the current world climate of the pandemic and racial tensions, a desire for the true relevance and application of this word has resounded even more heavily with me. As I consider the three areas at the beginning of this article – organizations, people, and cultural context – I am reminded of the need for accountability at all levels.
As leaders, it is important to cultivate an environment of authenticity and trust, where individuals feel comfortable coming to us with the most minor of their concerns. Trust is built when accountability of others is embodied and encouraged by leaders. Trust and accountability go hand-in-hand when bringing about sustainable culture change. We must be accountable to the organization.
As leaders, we must hold ourselves accountable for our actions and we must hold others accountable for their actions when it is within our sphere to do so. We must be accountable to the people.
As leaders, we should lean into ways to understand the unique and diverse needs and concerns of the people we serve. We must be accountable within the context of the culture.
And finally, for leaders, accountability cannot be just another buzzword.