21st Century Leadership

two way streetDo the following phrases  mean anything to you?  Eight to five. Twenty-two and a half inches. Check your diagonals.   For some of you these terms may bring back memories of high scool marching band because you spent years listening to a squad leader yelling his or her expectations that you fit eight steps into each five yard increment, hitting the hash marks perfectly every time.  To accomplish this you had to make eight perfect 22.5 inch long strides, 100% of the time.  No more, no less. And the expectation was not that you hit the hash mark with your toes, or heel, but with the in-step of your foot perfectly placed smack dap on the middle of that thing! And rows and columns of marching musicians are kept perfetly straight by each individual constantly checking to ensure that the diagonal of which they are the center is perfectly aligned, left and right.  That squad leader had no trouble screaming these expectations during each practice and drill.  And if your experience was anything like mine, he didn’t have any trouble holding me accountable for delivery exact results to those expectations. He had a 15 ft. pole marked in 22.5″ intervals that he would lay on the field to measure whether or not I was steppeping with precsion.  He would follow me for a few bars and check my placement in the diagonal to check whether or not I was paying attention.  He held us accountable, because the section leader held him accountable.  And the band Director held that leader accountable. Failure to deliver excellence resulted in the dread words, “Salmons, take a lap!”  I hate running laps!

This is where I learned two important life lessons. The first: multi-tasking with attention to detail, no mistakes, memorize music perfectly, learn the drill, deliver with precision, and know my position in relation to the moving, constantly changing organization. Life changing, charachter building stuff.  However, it is the second life lesson that is the key to differentiating myself as a leader among leaders. That is, I had to allow myself to be held accountable.  Many students dropped out of our championship marching band. It was too tough, they said.  But looking back, I am convinced that the accountability factor was much more difficult than the work of it all. Perhaps they were not willing to accept that accountability is a two-way street: holding others accountable and being willing to be held accountable.

There are four keys to differentiating yourself as a leader among leaders, on this two-way street.

1.)  Courageous leaders allow themselves to be held accountable.  They acknowledge and  accept that there are others in positions of authority over them.  It takes courage to play by the rules within the framework of organizational structure and respect the rules that come with it.  It is easy to spot the folks who operate against this grain. You know them.  Nothing is their fault. Not delivering results is always because someone or something got in their way. They lay blame easily. They throw their team under the bus. The goal was just unrealistic, they say.

Let’s contrast with the courageous leader.  This individual understands their personal responsibility and owns it, no matter how great or lousy their particular leader is. They participate in the process. They respect the structure.  They remove barriers and deliver results. They ask for help, and they help others. They understand the principle of consequences and choose to participate in meaningful conversation along the way.

2.)  Courageous leaders hold others accountable. This is ciritical to alignment with the greater   organization. These leaders hold those in authority over them accountable. They manage up, very well. They hold their peers accountable. They hold their direct reports accountable.  Do not confuse this activity with the venacular used so often today, where folks complain they’re being judged.  Holding folks accountable is not being judgmental.  It is courageous committment.

3.)  Courageous leaders fully understand the consequences for not holding others accountable.  They realize that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and therefore consequences; whether intended or unintentional. Positive results and rewards are positive consequences. However, the outcome for choosing not to hold folks accountable is never good.  In the book, How Did That HappenHolding People Accountable for Results the Positive, Principled Way authors Roger Connors and Tom Smith provide solid advice results-getting action for people leaders who find themselves scratching their heads when expectations are not met.  In my opinion, devoid of accountability, leadership is reduced to process management. Excellent leaders understand that the consequences are measured in key performance indicators, credibility, opportunity cost, revenue, quality, and satisfaction.  So, they choose to build accountability into their management routines, with a defined cadence.

4.)  Courageous leaders comprehend the consequences for not allowing others to hold them accountable.  It doesn’t matter if it is the Board of Directors, stock holders, your direct manager, your direct reports, your peers, your customers, your spiritual leader, or the police officer pulling you over for a traffic violation.  We all have people in positions of authority over us.  Being willing to be held accountable separates the cream from the milk; the professionals from the wanna-be’s.  It is a choice.  And frankly, it is freeing.  Choosing accountability offers opportunity for development, challenges our capability, and provides real difference-making work.  Choosing accountability is character building. It is the stuff integrity is made of.  It is a great differentiator.

Failure to allow yourself to be held accountable has significant consequences, and courageous leaders know that.  Consequences such as loss of credibility, absence of self-awareness, loss of integrity, and loss of good reputation. The opportunity cost is huge.

There is a Biblical example we can take from 2 Kings chapter 5.  Elisha had just healed the King of Aram of leprosy, and declined any payment for it.  However, Elisha’s employee, Gehazi, decided he was going to collect the compensation offered for himself, despite Elisha’s explicit directive not to accept payment for the work.  However, Gehazi refused to be held accountable to Elisha.  He took action based on his own thoughts, his own desires, without regard for the consequences.  The result was that Gehazi took on the leprosy previously apparent on the King.

Now, we don’t see leprosy evident in 21st century America, as a physical disease.  However, we do see it prevalent in our culture, as a metaphor for folks who refuse to allow themselves to be held accountable.  It can manifest as the leprosy of lost credibility, lost reputation, lost opportunity for advancement, or lost desirability as a valued business partner.  We all know folks like this who have made decisions or taken action outside of their accountability circle and today are just treading water in our workplaces.

I’d much rather place myself in a position of being accountable and hold others accountable for the goals we’ve signed up for, than experience the consequences. Wouldn’t you? Weigh in – what experiences or thoughts do you have about accountability in 21st century American business?

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