Accountability in Leadership

By Casey Pechan
Updated December 3, 2021
6 minute read

Accountability in leadership is vital to business success, but many leadership teams acknowledge that they have a lot of room to grow in this area.

Global research led by leadership accountability expert Vince Molinaro found that 72% of business leaders and HR professionals agree that accountability is critical for business success. But only 31% are satisfied with the level of leadership accountability they see in their own organizations.

Why is leadership accountability so important for the business, and why do so many leaders struggle to maintain accountability?

Leaders set the tone for the rest of the organization to follow. Without accountability from top-level leaders and middle managers, employees feel rudderless and lost. As a leader, it’s crucial to implement accountability, alignment, and focus throughout your team in order to foster team success. 

But many companies don’t have the cultural infrastructure in place to set clear expectations for leaders. Without a clear definition of what the company expects from leadership, individuals in leadership roles don’t have a leadership model to be held accountable to. This results in fragmented leadership at a time when alignment is more important than ever for business success.

Companies need strong leadership to close the loop between strategy, people, and results. Here’s how you can embrace leadership accountability at your company.

What Does It Mean to Be Accountable as a Leader?

Leadership accountability in the workplace is an overlooked but essential component of a healthy culture. But what is an accountable leader, and how do they drive business results?

“Accountability” suggests that leaders are held accountable to someone or something. There are several measures of accountability. One is business performance, which most companies prioritize. But leaders must also be accountable to company culture (stated mission, vision, values, and purpose), as well as to the workforce itself.

For leaders to be accountable, they need to be committed to the business and its people. They must take their role as people leaders seriously, building trust among team members. Accountable leaders clearly communicate their goals and objectives and key results (OKRs) to their teams to foster alignment and team focus. They accept responsibility when things go wrong and give credit for success where it’s due.

Accountable leaders assess accountability in those below their level, too. Top-level leadership, for instance, must hold middle managers accountable for their own commitment to the business, the workforce, and company culture. By addressing leaders who aren’t accountable, they set standards for accountable leadership in the company.

Accountable leaders also foster team accountability by developing teams who are capable of thinking critically about the company’s needs and how they can optimize their contributions. Owning mistakes is a key aspect of accountability, and it’s also the first step to learning from inevitable mistakes while continuing to move forward.

Why Is Accountability Important in Leadership?

Leadership accountability is vital for keeping organizations on track, especially in a volatile and uncertain work climate. On the business side, there has to be strong accountability at the top to keep employees aligned with the business strategy across the organization. 

Accountability toward people and culture is equally important because these are each critical elements of driving business results. Lack of accountability damages the entire company culture, which affects the morale and motivation of individual workers. 

If leaders are leaders in name only, employees will feel anchorless and may become disconnected. They may become bitter if they see leaders are collecting larger paychecks but not showing up and keeping employees aligned and moving in the right direction.

Becoming a leader at your company should come with a set of defined roles and responsibilities. Add an additional layer of accountability with leadership mentoring programs. Middle managers should have a mentor in a higher-level leadership role to help keep them on track. Leaders at the top should have an executive coach or mentor to support their personal growth.

Only when leaders are aligned and accountable can your business move forward.

3 Elements of a Culture of Accountability

Culture plays a large part in defining leadership and setting expectations for accountability. Leaders must foster a strong leadership culture that drives accountability. This helps set expectations for leadership development. 

Here are three essential elements of a culture of accountability that you can foster at your company.

Strong company values

Your company’s values should guide decision-making across the workforce. Make sure employees understand your values and how they translate to behaviors in their specific roles. While leaders must understand how to live the company’s values, these values need to be understood and lived by everyone to create and sustain a culture of accountability. 

When all employees recognize values in action — or their absence when they should be in action — leaders will feel more pressure to act in line with those values.

A defined leadership model

Leaders need a defined leadership model to be held accountable to, but many companies fail to set clear expectations. Instead, they expect individuals to pick up on unspoken leadership expectations. But this often leaves leaders filling in the gaps from their personal experiences, resulting in several competing definitions of good leadership at your company. 

Leadership development programs should define leadership within the company and set expectations for behaviors. 

Team accountability

Team accountability, by definition, relies on set expectations for team members regarding workflows, processes, and performance. When individuals feel accountable to others, they’re more likely to meet or exceed deadlines and contribute better overall results to the business.

Team accountability exercises such as setting transparent expectations will lead to high performance.

How OKRs Can Promote Leadership Accountability

You need a defined framework to hold people accountable for their work. OKRs provide a structure for setting organizational and individual goals. That structure supports better accountability for both leaders and individual contributors.

Governing an OKR program forces leaders to be intentional about goal-setting, as well as communicate transparently with their team members. OKR governance has three components:

Accountability

Two-way communication is key to fostering accountability when setting OKRs. Executives must set the business strategy and priorities, but employees should be empowered to set their own goals. This requires both parties to meet in the middle to ensure alignment. Leaders need to take accountability for aligning their reports’ objectives to the larger business strategy.

Accountability is important for learning from the process of meeting agreed-upon objectives, too. At the end of each quarter, leaders must be able to walk their teams through what worked and what didn’t and pinpoint why. That requires a willingness from everyone to take responsibility in order to diagnose problems and prevent them in the future.

Alignment

Accountable leaders drive the vertical alignment process between individuals and the business. But horizontal alignment is crucial, too. Horizontal alignment refers to alignment across departments or teams. 

As you set OKRs, be sure to document dependencies. It must be extremely clear on the front end who will be responsible for each part of meeting an objective, especially one that’s shared across departments or teams that don’t normally work together. Appoint a clear owner to foster accountability, which will support better communication and transparency during this process.

Focus

OKRs won’t come to fruition without sufficient focus and commitment. First, companies must bring their objectives into focus for leaders to communicate to their teams. Second, individuals must commit to their objectives, which requires defining focused and well-thought-out key results.

Accountability is important here, too: Individuals need to feel accountable for their own OKRs, but leaders have to set the tone. Consider creating an OKR template to keep employee objectives on track. The template should lay out OKR ownership so that individual employees know their objectives for the quarter. 

OKR software can help create another layer of accountability by placing individual OKRs in the larger context. Individual objectives are part of larger business priorities, and seeing where their OKRs fit in can help individuals remain focused on achieving their goals.

6 Leadership and Accountability Examples

Leadership accountability isn’t limited to grandiose strategic exercises. There are several ways leaders can demonstrate accountability in their daily routines and behaviors.

Goals 

Accountable leaders set goals that align with the business’s priorities. This gives them personal accountability over driving business results. They also foster that same sense of ownership among their direct reports. 

Having clear goals for themselves and their teams makes measuring accountability much easier to do.

Performance Management

Accountable leaders provide constructive performance feedback to their reports. They help identify problem areas, and they work with individuals to investigate their causes. Setting clear performance objectives for individual workers helps them stay accountable to the rest of the team. 

Team Building

Accountable leaders set a good example of leadership in the service of the company and the workforce. The “trust fall” is the conventional team-building activity, but it’s not nearly as practical or meaningful as incorporating team-building activities directly into daily work. Regularly review each contributor’s responsibilities, and make sure they understand their role in producing the final product.

In team meetings, leaders and team members walk the fine line of holding each other accountable without constantly transferring blame. Accountability team building creates a model for good leadership, sets clear standards, and empowers teams to move past failures to find solutions.

Trust

Accountable leadership fosters trust. When leaders take clear accountability, employees will have faith that their actions are in the best interests of both the organization and the workforce. 

By living the company’s values, leaders at all levels set tangible examples of good behavior. This builds trust with team members, who can see when leaders are veering off-track and hold them accountable.

Integrity

A lack of personal accountability undermines a leader’s integrity. Acting with integrity helps you become a better leader, as employees will have greater respect for and trust in your commitment to leadership.

Employees will recognize true integrity when they see it. Leaders with integrity set a good example and inspire their employees to practice integrity in their work.

Communication

Communication is critical to leadership accountability. Accountable leaders are transparent with their employees. They take responsibility for their actions and those of their team, and they use communication effectively to stay in the loop and pinpoint potential problems.

Set expectations for communication norms so that employees know when and how to contact their colleagues and supervisors. Maintain regular communication to anticipate and remove roadblocks to high performance.

Improving accountability is key to driving business results, fostering a transparent culture, and supporting your workforce. When expectations are clear, and the workforce is aligned on its priorities, your company can progress. Leadership accountability can make that happen. 

Good, accountable leaders close the loop between strategy, people, and results.

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