Accountability or Responsibility – The Achilles’ Heel of Leadership

Accountability or Responsibility – the Achilles’ Heel of Leadership by Andrew Harley

There is a blurred boundary between responsibility and accountability. For many people the two are interchangeable, with shared meaning. This paper will examine the clear and profound difference between the two terms. The understanding of this difference is one of the critical factors in differentiating truly effective leaders from those who are only taskmasters.

To illustrate the difference a comparison can be made between two business leaders:

Brian is the Managing Director of a manufacturing business that generates revenues of €60 million a year from products sold globally. He has direct involvement in all aspects of the business and keeps track of progress by the active management of 250 current tasks in Outlook on his computer and Blackberry. His challenge, as he sees it, is to ensure that all the tasks are completed to his satisfaction.

Alan is the Managing Director of a manufacturing business that has grown from sales of €10 million five years ago to €40 million in the current year. Alan’s target for the business next year is €60milloin. He actively monitors eight projects, ranging from cost reduction to innovation. Most of his energy is devoted to ensuring that everyone in the business has a clear and shared picture of the future and are committed to making that picture a reality.

The difference is stark – Brian works almost 100 hours a week and feels that he has no time to relax. Alan averages 50 hours a week and has a good work/life balance. How can we understand this difference? Essentially both Brian and Alan want the same things, to deliver growth and shareholder value. The difference is the way that they approach this. Brian has not yet made the distinction between what he is accountable for and what he is responsible for. Alan, on the other hand, is acutely aware of the difference and refuses to let the boundaries become compromised.

The way that the two terms differ is subtle and sometimes difficult to articulate. The simple and easy way to distinguish between the two is to take the meaning of Responsible as the expression of the direct link between action and outcome. Accountability is the achievement of outcomes by indirect means. Returning to Brian and Alan this is the way that it works in reality: Brian knows what has to be done and how. If he had time he could do everything himself. The time is not available so he instructs others to act as his proxies.

Alan knows what has to be achieved and by when. He believes that others know better than him how to do things – so he builds in others commitment to the result and allows them to determine for themselves the means of achievement.

Alan is comfortable answering to the shareholders regarding the performance of the business –accountability sits easily with him. He understands that it is his duty to make the business effective and efficient. He recognises that this can only be delivered if each individual is effective, committed and takes responsibility for delivering their assigned contribution – not as a set of actions but a result to be achieved.

At this point it might be tempting to leave Brian behind and explore further what Alan is doing. But there are more Brians in the world than there are Alans. If Brian can be helped then his business will prosper and grow and he will get some of his life back. By examining what Brian is doing and particularly what he does not do, we can illuminate the areas of potential development and improvement.

Brian believes that people:

• like to be given clear direction and instruction

• are there to help him do what needs to be done

• are not as committed to the business as he is and accept standards that are lower than his

• do not see things as clearly as he does and he doesn’t have the time to explain

Brian is locked into making process work and getting others to fit the process – results become a happy accident not the common goal! Brian has taken on the burden of both accountability and responsibility. He does not see how he can shift the burden of responsibility to others – he tells them what to do but they don’t seem to get it. For him it is most expedient to keep the responsibility. He has effectively taught his team that he will take responsibility for solving all the problems in the business. This has never been his intention – it just sort of crept-up on him. What should he do?

He need s to begin by deciding where he wants the business to go – to set realistic targets for growth in volume, revenue, market share and margin. These need to be communicated to his team and they should decide how the targets should be met. Brian needs to be comfortable with the general plan and give his team members the responsibility to make it happen. They can solve their own problems – Brian just needs to monitor progress. That is in essence what Alan does and his business grows and grows.


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Andrew Harley is a Senior Consultant at DavittCorporatePartners – Corporate Psychologists