The accountable leader

I once had a boss. And when I say boss, I mean bosshole. He was no leader. I’m pretty sure Robert Sutton would’ve called him “a gigantuous asshole“. Well, Mr. Sutton’s not writing this, I am. So you should hold me accountable to those words.

In any case, we were to have a meeting once. It was supposed to be about one thing. It turned out, that meeting took an entirely other direction. He basically drew a scale on a whiteboard and told me:

“So Jacob. If you were on this scale, and this end was brilliant, and that end was pretty much shit – I would say that right now you’re mostly in the shit end.”

The meeting went on, and he went on lambasting me about why my great efforts on one project, was not the standard in everything I did.

When the meeting ended, I was left with the outlook of spending my summer vacation thinking about if I was doing the right thing, in the right organization. That’s what he tasked me with. I felt fired, without actually being fired. So much so, that I was convinced, that after my summer vacation, I would be.

“If you had a legitimate reason for attending a course, I’m not even sure I would want to invest in you.”

Emotionally I was shattered. In truth, I wasn’t actually sure if I was to be appalled, laugh at the man for his leadership incompetence, or hide in a hole. Well, I don’t hide in general, so I chose a mix of the two first choices.

I spent that summer being completely off, preparing mentally for finding another job. Because this guy was so high up the hierarchy, that I didn’t feel anyone could help me.

This story brings forth a question, which I have pondered ever since. I won’t claim to have any ultimate truth or answer to this, and I’m not sure there is one answer or truth.

The question is:

  • How are leaders held accountable for what they say, and how they act ?
  • And as a subsequent question: How SHOULD leaders be held accountable ?
  • How could we create a system or a model of accountability, for when things go awry, and people feel there are no options ?

These are extremely important questions, I think. Because, if we forget this specific story for a moment, I don’t think I’ve actually ever been at a place where there’s been any trustworthy mechanism which could stop any leader from behaving like that. And at least to me it seems, that accountability is something often imposed from the top and down – seldom the other way around.

If you’ve read David Pink’s book “Drive” on motivation, you would know about The AMP (Or, actually you wouldn’t. I just coined my own term because it 1) made it a lot easier to remember, 2) is actually a great metaphor for what these three things act as). The three things which are important to keeping people motivated.

  • Autonomy.
  • Mastery.
  • Purpose.

In my case, the conflict was between two people where the powerdistance was off the charts. I was the guy on the floor, I had a limited degree of contact around the organization. He was the guy on the roof, with the power and ability to be anywhere he wanted to. Call me off my rockers, but I have a pretty good feeling this kind of situation happens a lot around the globe, every day.

Now, I would dare say, that when you’re lambasting someone, you definitely remove all feeling of autonomy. You don’t make them feel very masterful by telling them they’re shit, especially when you also signal, that you want to cut off their path to further potential mastery. And I don’t know about you, but I definitely felt I lost my sense of purpose that day.

I felt demotivated for a long time. And demotivation is basically bad business, for the demotivatee and the demotivator. It translates to poor performance, which translates to perhaps time and effort, which translates directly to money. Last time I checked, one of the purposes of a business is to make money.

Some possible solutions

Well for one, there’s good old Rensis Likert. His odd name to a side, I see him as one of the original pioneers in humanizing the workplace. In the 60′s he did a study of a large number of organizations. Some of his conclusions were, that organizations organized the bureaucratic way, performed less then those which weren’t. One of his basic assumptions were, that we humans have a strong need to perform, feel valuable and respected. And the most important source of these things, are the people we’re in close contact with, through our daily work.

Fast forward to today, where unbossing and networked, socialized organizations have become popular topics. By the way, Mr. Rensis Likert said basically the same, except 50 years ago.

I’m not sure that his organizational model is perfect, it does contain a lot of buts. But the message is pretty solid.

There is of course also the 360 assessment, which I think would be great for everyone. It’s a sound thing to have your self-view challenged by the views of others, regularly. But for leaders, I think it should be mandatory and happen regularly. This could definitely help hold the leader accountable. Include those being led.

Then there are benefits. If a leader has a benefits or bonus scheme as part of his salary in any way, for Gods sake, LINK the benefits or bonus to his performance as a people leader, and make sure he’s evaluated properly on this. There should be no weak points, and there should be no fluffy ways around not doing your job as a leader.

You could make the leaders yearly review include leadership performance, as opposed to just reaching project goals.

You could democratize the leadership role. If you perform poorly, you do not get elected next year as a leader. You could e.g. get a year away from the role, getting the chance to learn and improve your leadership role. Perhaps through leadership mentoring from those who do get elected, and perform great as leaders.

And last, but not least, you could start an organizational transformation, into a networked organization. Where trust is key, and you won’t succeed in very many things, if you’re not able to build that trust.

Who’s responsible ?

No matter which way you do or don’t do this, I feel this is the responsibility of the organization as a whole, but the C-suite in particular. If you want to avoid situations like the story I told, the C-suite HAS to support the shared accountability between employees and leaders. It’s vital. It’s a signal to your employees, that they’re being taken seriously. That you value them. And that if the tank gets too hot, there’s actually a valve you can turn, so everything doesn’t blow up in your face.

HR is responsible for working with leadership development, values, cultural aspects, etc.

And last but not least, we’re ALL responsible for holding each other accountable for the things we say and do. And ourselves. Especially ourselves.

I’m sure there are a lot of other ways to do this, that I didn’t think of. I’m sure there are other ways to view this topic.

And I would love it if you shared your views on this through the comments.

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