Why leaders should never take 100% accountability

by Michael Bunting23 Aug 2016
As a mindfulness coach for high-level executives, I have noticed that many of the leaders I work with have spent years blaming other people for lack of results.
As they start on their mindfulness journey they then swing to the opposite end of the scale, taking 100% responsibility for everything that happens in their team or organisation. But 100% accountability isn’t the correct response for taking ownership; what’s really needed is 200% accountability.
Poor performance isn’t solely the fault of either the leader or the team. Everyone shares responsibility, and everyone must take full accountability — but only for that which they control. Thinking of accountability in terms of, “the result of my putting in 100%” isn’t accurate. The equation should instead look like this:
100% accountability from the leader + 100% accountability from the team = 200% accountability
A partnership in which one person takes full accountability and the other takes only partial accountability is dysfunctional. It simply doesn’t work. If you hold yourself accountable without holding your partner accountable, you create a narcissist. The saying “It takes two to tango” applies here. It takes two to cause dysfunction, but it also takes two to fix that dysfunction. And of course this principle applies to whole teams and organisations.
Organisational scientist Peter Senge puts it like this: “Personal change and organisational change are always two sides of the same coin, and the fantasy we often carry around that somehow my organisation will change without me changing is truly crazy. And what will inevitably be communicated if you are operating from that fantasy is that you need to change, but not me. And if there is any one absolute, sure-fire, 100% reliable source of resistance to change, it’s that.”
I once worked with a struggling CEO. When people did not meet his expectations he became emotionally abusive, then angrily took their workload on himself. He brought us in to help him develop real accountability and performance, but ironically, he wanted us to change his people and his systems­–anything but himself. He could not see the links between his behaviour and the organisational outcomes. In fact, like so many leaders, he was not even aware that his behaviour was supporting the exact opposite of what he was trying to achieve.
We made an agreement that he would be 100% responsible for changing his self-sabotaging behaviour, while his team were 100% responsible for delivering their outcomes. It was a contract of trust and responsibility, with clear consequences and accountability for change on both sides. Five years later, his team’s revenue and profit have nearly doubled and he is no longer engaging in his self-sabotaging behaviour.
200% accountability in action
Deven, a CEO and client of mine, once shared a story with me about how mindfulness and 200% accountability worked for him. As his company was going through a fast growth phase, Deven needed to take on a bigger role in the company.
As he relinquished some duties to take on new ones, other executives were required to step in and fill the void. Things were slipping through the cracks and important tasks weren’t getting done. He was feeling exhausted, stressed and anxious, and he started behaving in disrespectful ways. As we all do at times, he lost his way behaviourally.
The turning point came when his team told him they were unhappy with his behaviour. They didn’t mind that he was holding people accountable, but they were unhappy with his style.
As all the best leaders do, Deven self-reflected and took responsibility for his actions. He recognised the state of stress he was leading from, and committed to re-commence his mindfulness meditation practice and re-centre himself. A few weeks later he met with his senior executives and they came up with a solution that everyone contributed to and was happy with.
Deven told me, “The only reason we were able to even have those conversations is because I had pulled myself away and addressed my own dysfunction. If I had tried to say something earlier, when I was grumpy, irritable and anxiety-ridden, it would have seemed like I wasn’t taking accountability for my actions. And that would have been the case — I would have just been blaming others for not stepping up.
“I was in a reactive state. But once I was able to get that calmness of mind, I was able to take accountability for my own actions first, and then hold my team accountable in a kind, calm and patient way. When I approached the team, it came from a loving, inspirational place, not a reactive, anxiety-driven place.
“Mindfulness makes all the difference in my ability to deal with frustrating situations appropriately and to hold myself and everyone else accountable without making anyone feel shamed or belittled.”
Deven’s story reminded me of a time when I confessed to a client that I had been acting dysfunctionally with my own team and that I was busy course-correcting myself. He looked at me in shock and said, “Hang on a minute. You’ve been practising mindfulness for decades. Surely you should have eliminated your dysfunction a long time ago and learned how to always be impeccable?”
I remember laughing hard. “No,” I replied, “that would be seriously delusional.” Yes, mindfulness helps us move slowly but surely toward consistently healthy behaviour. But there will always be blind spots and challenges. The real gift of ownership and mindfulness is that it allows us to correct course so much faster. It keeps us humble and real.
Above all, mindfulness teaches us that we are fallible; and that is one of its greatest gifts. When we are mindful, we don’t waste time and energy defending and rationalising our actions. We take a good look and get on with re-engaging in the healthiest possible way, just as Deven did. 
Mindfulness gives us both the insight to recognise that we are accountable and the tools for shifting into a new way of being, behaving and seeing the world that reduces our suffering and that of others.
A culture of accountability
Mindful leaders create a culture of compassionate accountability by not participating in the blame game. Their goal is not to find some person or some thing to blame. Instead, they seek to objectively analyse each situation, looking for what can be learned from it. They compassionately look for how team members may have contributed to a failure, not in order to say, “See what you did wrong?” but instead to say, “What can we learn from this, and do differently next time?”
Mindful leaders separate character from competence. There’s a world of difference between a person who displays a lack of character or consciously violates values and a person who makes an innocent mistake based on a lack of knowledge or skill.
A story told by Thomas Watson, the former CEO of IBM, illustrates this well. When an employee made a critical mistake that cost the company $600 000, Thomas was asked if he was going to fire the employee. He responded, “No, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody else to hire his experience?”
That’s the kind of culture that makes it emotionally safe to fail. Allowing people to innocently fail stops the blame game in its tracks; when people don’t fear punishment for failure, they have no reason to blame anyone else. They are more inclined to learn rather than get defensive.
When they do fail, they realise that’s part of the pathway to success, and they are more open to feedback because they recognise their failure is not a deal-breaker, instead it’s an opportunity to learn and try again. They are freed up to more openly admit their mistakes because the cost of doing so is a sum benefit, rather than a sum loss.
Ultimately, as leaders we cannot inspire change in others until we learn to change ourselves. We cannot maintain presence, aliveness or credibility if we blame others or rationalise unmindful behaviour.
Taking accountability may seem like the hard path. But remember, it is easier to take responsibility than attempt to control everyone else and every life circumstance. In this insight lies a great freedom, and a truly a priceless gift for yourself and for those whom you connect with every day.
The next time something goes wrong, remember that taking 100% accountability isn’t the answer—and neither is blaming everyone but yourself. To support and invite a healthy, successful company culture, remember true accountability is a 200% sum. The solution lies in both sides, leaders and team members, taking responsibility and accountability for their share of the equation.
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