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The Accountability Gap

by Anthony Bontrager on September 8, 2015


Ah, what’s puzzling you

Is the nature of my game

– Sympathy for the devil, The Rolling Stones


I find it morbidly fascinating the growing accountability gap that permeates a lot of startups these days. In fact, companies of any size routinely face this issue – where leaders begin to believe their own inaccurate description of how things really are and then make decisions in order to perpetuate this false reality. This can be benignly embodied as having incorrectly defined success for their organization and managing to the wrong KPI’s or less benignly and more egregiously as actively seeking to shift the blame of past management mistakes to others.

I use the term “benignly” very loosely as neither embodiment comes without significant risk to the overall health and viability of the company. However, while the former can reasonably be solved, the latter requires a cold and hard look at the make up of a company’s management and their capabilities.

But the real question I’d like to answer is why? What is the end goal of those who perpetuate this accountability gap? Or as the song goes, what is “the nature of their game?”

I’ve recently been involved in helping solve the accountability gap with two distinctly different companies – one that was focusing on the wrong definition of success and wouldn’t take responsibility for changing course, and the other who’s CEO actively sought to shift responsibility for their poor decision making onto others. In both cases it boiled down to simple self-preservation by the individuals involved. This common human trait is the devil lurking inside all organizations and left unchecked, can unwind even the most successful companies.

I understand that people are reluctant to admit to mistakes (“we used the wrong framework for that e-commerce platform”) or be the bearer of bad news (“our product will not ship on time”), but that’s what being a leader is all about. Owning up to mistakes or quickly escalating bad news, allows the organization to quickly address the issue at hand and move the company forward. It demonstrates self-awareness and confidence, and helps establish a culture of accountability, which in turn allows team members to take greater ownership in the fortunes of the company without fear of reprisal. This kind of accountability engagement throughout an organization is what separates leaders from followers and should be a priority for every management team. Otherwise, companies and teams are left caught in the trap of hoping a dose of tenacity and repetition over time will make things better. This is a devil’s fallacy that can and will sabotage every effort to create success.

A true leader is accountable. So if you want to lead, have no sympathy for the devil.

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