Why leaders avoid taking accountability

by Michael Bunting15 Aug 2016
The story is told in ancient Buddhist literature of a pampered princess who was walking barefoot in her father’s kingdom when she stepped on a thorn. In pain, she demanded of her father’s advisers that the entire kingdom be carpeted. Instead, one adviser made her a pair of sandals and kindly encouraged her to wear them rather than carpeting the whole kingdom.  

This simple story reveals a mentality that all leaders engage in to one extent or another. We yearn for a world of soft carpet and no thorns. We operate under the unexamined belief that our conditions need to be okay for us to be okay. And in this belief, our mindfulness and our happiness become as fragile as the delicate feet of a pampered princess.

This mindset is also at odds with the accountability needed for great leadership. Our “carpet” becomes our team, our customers, our boss, the economy—everyone but ourselves.

When we insist on carpeting the world, we’re essentially insisting that everyone but us needs to change. We’re absolving our own accountability, and leaving our happiness and effectiveness in the hands of others. So many leaders are fixated on carpeting the world, consequentially engaging in rationalisation whenever they fail or feel challenged.

As I’ve seen played out countless times in the course of my mindful leadership training, the thinking and behaviours we engage in when not taking accountability for our actions are exhibited in many ways, including the following:

•    rationalisation
•    defensiveness
•    denial
•    aggressiveness
•    blame
•    isolation (running away)
•    stonewalling
•    passive-aggressive retreat/withdrawal
•    the PR spin (for example, we are told we are not delegating well, but rather than changing we “sell” ourselves by pointing out how excellent our results are)
•    deflection (the politician’s favourite)

Intellectually, it makes no sense to engage in these behaviours. We lose credibility, arrest our learning and growth, and become rigid and narrow. I have personally witnessed these behaviours end careers and cost companies millions of dollars. So the question is, why?

Why would we sooner engage in convincing everyone (ourselves included) that we are right, rather than looking within, and reaping the rewards of a deeper integrity?

The primary payoff we get for rationalising and blaming is a sense of security and emotional comfort. If we could slow time, we would notice that when we receive uncomfortable feedback and then engage in defensiveness, rationalisation, aggressiveness or blame, we win a temporary reprieve from feelings of vulnerability and discomfort.

Some would say we engage in “insane” behaviours for a very sane reason: to gain a sense of security, an easing of our distress and a return to equilibrium. Food, television, drugs and alcohol can offer the same temporary relief. And, like all of these props, the net result is numbness.

We choose numbness over discomfort or fear or insecurity, but it comes at a high cost: it is a life-stealer. As research professor and best-selling author Brené Brown puts it, “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

And that means we are less present in our lives and less available to experience the wonderful emotions like joy and deep fulfilment. Our life narrows and we are so much the poorer for it.

Our desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings is referred to by psychologists as “distress intolerance”, which is defined as the “perceived inability to fully experience unpleasant, aversive or uncomfortable emotions, and is accompanied by a desperate need to escape the uncomfortable emotions”.

None of us like experiencing unpleasant emotions. But there’s a difference between disliking them while accepting they are an inevitable part of life, and experiencing them as unbearable and desperately trying to avoid and rid ourselves of them.

If we can’t stick with the distress, we have no chance of developing a deeper level of mindfulness and ease in our lives. The journey to mental and emotional strength, healing and wholeness is through embracing our whole lives and our whole selves, warts and all.

This is the heart of an authentic life and authentic leadership. We cannot heal until we learn to sit with our sadness, pain and insecurity. Ironically, we can even run from the intensity of our deepest joy, love and sense of peace; they too can be overwhelming. Our ability to feel true bliss is proportionate to our willingness to face difficult feelings.

To reach our full leadership potential we must look deeper. We must pay closer attention to what is happening when we are rationalising or running away.

Michael Bunting is the bestselling author of The Mindful Leader and A Practical Guide to Meditation, and co-author of Extraordinary Leadership in Australia and New Zealand. He runs leadership consultancy WorkSmart Australia, a certified B-Corp. For more information, visit www.mindfulleader.net