Leaders are everywhere. Some leadership is easy to spot…they are C-level executives, presidents, managers, directors, coaches, and team captains. Others are not as obvious…they are individual contributors on a team, counselors, teachers, and volunteers. Leaders change our world, whether at a macro level or micro, for the good or bad.
Fortunately, there are many good leaders out there. Unfortunately, there are just as many bad ones. Leadership isn’t easy.
Many attributes are used to define a great leader…honest, authentic, confident, a good listener and communicator, inspiring, committed, and hardworking, to name a few. But in my opinion, there is no attribute more important than accountability. Deep-rooted, blame-no-one, the-buck-stops-with-me kind of accountability. The kind of accountability that says, “I take complete ownership of what just happened. It’s my fault and no one else’s.”
Let’s face it, there is no such thing as a perfect leader. Every one of us makes bad decisions, says the wrong thing at the wrong time, gives poor direction, reacts badly, goes into denial, and screws up every now and then (or perhaps often). What separates the best from the rest is how a leader takes ownership for mistakes…not only of those he or she personally makes but those of his or her team and organization as a whole.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming people and other outside forces for a given situation.
- The market is brutal; we have no options so that’s why our numbers are so low.
- There are too many budget constraints. I can’t get the resources I need to be successful.
- Management just doesn’t get it; this plan will never work.
- I don’t have an A Players on my team. How can I possibly succeed when I have to work with such incompetent people?
- I have to work with that person; I’m not going to tell her what I really think and risk losing my job.
- My team is pulling its weight but can’t get any further because other departments are fumbling.
- He won’t listen. She won’t get on board. I’m doing everything I can but it’s hopeless.
While all of these excuses might have some merit, they are just that: excuses. And if it isn’t your role as a leader to overcome these types of obstacles, whose role is it? If it’s not your responsibility to ensure that you’ve developed (or are part of developing) a high-performing team, then whose responsibility is it? If it’s not your job to lead, then whose job is it?
Most of us understand the value of being accountable, but we stop short of true ownership because we put conditions on it. We are willing to take ownership as long as others do, too. We will take responsibility for part of the mishap, but only our part, because someone else screwed up, too. We convince ourselves that taking full ownership isn’t fair or that we shouldn’t have to because it wasn’t 100% our fault. And even when we fess up and take our share of the blame, we justify why it happened with explanations and excuses. This is conditional ownership, not true buck-stops-with-me ownership. Conditional ownership has no place with strong leadership.
The best leaders don’t just take responsibility for their own jobs, lives, and mistakes; they take responsibility for everything that happens to their teams and organizations, no matter what. They don’t look for people or events on which to pass blame. They look within themselves. It’s the job of a leader to create conditions of success and if success is fleeting, it’s ultimately his or her responsibility to fix it. You do it by refusing to make excuses, taking full responsibility for a lack of clear and strong leadership, surrounding yourself with smart and committed people, rolling up your sleeves to develop a plan of action, and fixing the mess that was created under your watch. There is no other way to lead than by being truly accountable for everything you say, do, and lead.
So the next time you find yourself blaming the market, management, or your less-than-high performing team, remember that leadership starts and stops with you. If something isn’t working, take action to fix it. Coach, mentor, and performance manage your people, but if you have to make the hard decision to remove someone who doesn’t have what it takes, make it. If your team isn’t on board with a new direction, ask yourself if you effectively shared “the why” (see my blog post on the importance of the why here). If senior management doesn’t “get it,” sit down with them to ask more questions, share your concerns and offer to be part of the solution. If morale is low, take responsibility for poor decision-making and deficient communication and then make things better immediately. If the market tanks, accept it as a challenge to succeed despite it; come up with Plan B, C, and D and execute the least bad option. Make no excuses; take true ownership.
It takes an exceptionally strong leader to give his or her team full credit when all is going well, letting them bask in the glory of success while standing in the background. It takes an even stronger leader to say “this is my fault and only my fault” when things go wrong and the team or organization fails. The buck stops with you. Are you willing to fully own that? Always remember that leadership matters.