Don’t Care What You Call It, Just Choose it & Do it!

Political leaders (I uses those two words together with great caution) claim that “the buck stops here” and “they are ultimately accountable.” Corporate chiefs claim they are “ultimately responsible.” So which is it and what do they mean?

I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks scouring the internet for some definitive distinction between the two words–accountable & responsible–and how to use them correctly. Through reading volumes of contradictory articles and papers (written by people who, given the confidence of their opinions must be much smarter than I am), I have reached a profound conclusion–people should use the word they are most comfortable with, and regardless of the one they choose, do something other than just say it!

A prime “non-political” example of what I am saying came during the recent NFL flap involving Ray Rice, when Commissioner Roger Goodell stepped up to the microphone and proclaimed, “Unfortunately, over the past several weeks, we have seen all too much of the NFL doing wrong, that starts with me.” “I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter, and I’m sorry for that, but now I will get it right.” He went on to say what he was going to do. I’m glad he’s working on getting it right, but he still got it wrong.

In the end, he will or won’t “get it right,” but I take issue with people (political or otherwise) who take “responsibility” only after being forced to do so. This, in my humble opinion, is a perfect example of the problem as I see it; too many people find those words easy to say but don’t give them the meaning or weight they deserve.

So what does “accountability” really mean?

First and foremost, I believe it means that you accept personal responsibility for what’s expected of you. When things don’t go as planned, don’t blame others or an external environment. Own up to the outcomes regardless of whether or not your actions specifically caused the problem. Demonstrating accountability is acknowledgment that there are things you could have done (even if you don’t know what they are), or still can do to change the outcome, and commitment to doing them.

When we fail to take ownership, we yield control (victim status), and being a victim is the exact opposite of being a leader. Victims blame, point fingers, deflect attention and make excuses. Leaders focus on what they should have done, can do or should do, and take action by seizing the initiative to influence the right outcomes.

I had a client a while back that wanted help shifting the mindset of their field management team to one that was more “accountability” oriented. To do that, I started with a very simple graphic (which by the way is one of my favorite coaching tools) and explained that good leaders take ownership of and focus on what they can control and refuse to waste energy and time on the things that they can’t.

Prior to the session I asked all of the managers to identify one or two barriers to meeting the business objectives. The range of answers I received was as varied as the people that provided them, but with rare exception they pointed to things other than themselves as the barriers. Not what I expected, but it actually played perfectly into my meme. I’ll speak to some of the types of barriers related to difficulty in hiring to make my point. I heard all kinds of reasons for their difficulties–poor candidate pools in their markets, poor service from their third party advertising firm (low applicant flow), even poor screening by their pre-hire assessment system.

When I mapped out their responses in the appropriate circle (based on their paradigm), the consistent theme was that they were victims of circumstances beyond their control. After I brought that to their attention, I asked, “So what part of that situation do you own?” The initial looks I received were interesting, and as they processed the question and their answers, I saw light bulbs starting to go on. Finally one of the managers raised her hand and said, “I can’t control the labor pool in my immediate market, but I can look in other markets.” Then another raised his hand and said, “I can’t do my own job advertising but I can work with our third-party vendor and give them feedback with regard to the low applicant flow.” The managers were beginning to “get it.”

Demonstrating ownership/accountability/responsibility is about focusing on what you can control or what you can influence, not succumbing to victim status by living in the “no control” circle.

Let’s circle back to Goodell for a moment and dissect the situation to see how well he owned the situation. Goodell missed a huge opportunity, in my opinion, by stepping out in defense against calls for his resignation–rather than immediately admitting his (not the NFL’s) mistake. The opportunity he missed was in giving his words weight and meaning. Had Goodell (you can substitute any name) immediately said what he said and then added, “I am taking ownership of this, and if I can’t resolve it, I’ll step down” then and only then he would have been taking responsibility and demonstrating true accountability and ownership.

The same goes for any leader. We have to get past the lip service we give to the topic of “accountability” and demonstrate it by pointing at ourselves and taking action – not making excuses and remaining the victim.

One example that stands out in history is James Burke, Chairman of the Board for Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol tampering disaster that occurred back in 1982. Burke’s ownership of something that was outside of his control (for the moment) was a life lesson for leaders. He immediately went to the media and took ownership (buck stops here): this is what we are doing and what we are going to do–and then he went and did it. When they discovered the root cause of the problem, they didn’t find it by looking for blame, they found it by looking for how their actions allowed it to occur and took action accordingly.

The impact of those actions were huge. The costs was pulling over 31 million bottles off the shelves in stores everywhere and offering free replacement to any customer that requested it; on top of that came a Tylenol re-launch (well over $100 million in direct costs). The benefits were what mattered, and they were tenfold (or more) the costs, as Johnson & Johnson’s stock price initially dropped (based on the ensuing panic) but fully recovered within two months. I offer that example, not just because it is a great one for demonstrating real ownership (proper circle management), but also its impact. People have much more confidence in those that take and demonstrate accountability than in those that abdicate it. Had Burke not taken ownership and instead blamed the person that did it, or minimized the risk to anyone outside of Chicago, consumer confidence likely would have worked against the brand and, subsequently, the share price and shareholder value.

Burke shows that accountable leaders do four very distinct things when taking responsibility:

  1. Make heavy use of the pronoun “I.”
  2. They are specific about the decisions they make and the results achieved, and about when their decisions do not make the expected results.
  3. They are NOT victims and refuse to wallow in remorse or self-pity.
  4. They spend their energy taking actions to correct the problem, not blaming others or their environment.

We all probably remember far more examples of organizational managers not taking ownership than we do those who took real accountability. Far fewer people become infamous for falling on their sword than for spearing others. It’s a fairly simple idea, but because it takes a special person to do it, it’s not always easy.

So which circle are you living in?

Indecision Kills-And you’re holding the murder weapon.

Leaders need to engage periodically in some serious introspection and decide whether or not their decision-making style or the culture they’ve created is mortally wounding organizational performance.

I learned that lesson as a by-product of a traumatic experience over three decades ago. Early in my flying career, in close proximity to another airplane also traveling at 400+ mph, I heard a magical phrase from my instructor that’s stuck with me ever since: indecision kills.

First, though, he said, “I have the stick.”

That meant he was going be in control of the airplane for a few minutes while giving me instruction and advice, and in this case, saving my life. It was clear to him (but not to me) that if I didn’t hurry and decide which course correction to make, my indecision would result in a catastrophic mid-air collision.

While not normally fatal in the corporate world, leadership and management indecision still kills. Among other things, it kills employee morale and motivation, productivity and project momentum, and causes our customers to lose confidence that we can be responsive to their needs.

Indecisiveness is caused by a number of factors, primarily fear of failure. Much has been written about decision-making processes and steps that those who have trouble being decisive can take. But I’ve yet to find a magic pill that managers can take that makes them less hesitant to make a “good enough” decision in an environment where imperfect decisions are frowned upon.

I have the stick for a minute.

Several years ago, our director called his senior managers together and boldly announced, “We take too long to make decisions. We’re going to start making decisions faster so we can make more decisions, and if we make a bad decision, at least we’ll have time to make a better one.” Heresy in a bureaucratic institution with an entrenched, hierarchical decision making process. But he was a leader, and we did start making better decisions without getting bogged down in staff morass.

I’m not suggesting all decisions need to be made quickly and neither was he. What I am suggesting is that leaders need to continually evaluate the effect their decision-making style is having on the organization, and the decision-making culture they’ve created for their managers. When leaders create an environment where employees feel empowered and decision-making has been appropriately delegated, managers are more willing to make timely, good decisions without waiting for perfect information.

And that reduces the mortality rate for employee morale, keeps promising projects from getting bogged down, and increases customer responsiveness.

Leadership is an activity, not a position. That activity includes making sure you foster an environment where the decision-making process doesn’t paralyze the organization and mistakes aren’t always professionally fatal.

Back to you, leaders…

You have the stick.

Leading Today… looks eerily like leading yesterday– What’s up with that?

Tom Peters is a smart guy. Most know him as the über-consultant, detailing how leadership should really work in the pages of In Search of Excellence, one of the best books written (way ahead of its time) on empowerment, employee engagement, and real leadership impact.

What many don’t know, is that Peters is a former McKinsey-ite, a 4-square model practitioner from way back. His previous employer recently invited him back for an interview—sort of a “how do things look now?” The article, you can read it here, is typical Peters—irreverent, direct, almost “in-your-face.” I loved every word, and I’ll tell you why: This guy gets it. Like no other author on leadership, Tom Peters gets it.

Here’s my take-aways from the article:

  1. Confusion is here. And it’s ok. Tom recently took 18 months off (if “off” is the right word) to read up on nearly all recent business and leadership tomes. His conclusion? “I’m more confused than when I started,” he said. Leading business is hard work. It’s holistic in nature, and needs a constant, complicated barrage of consistency, innovation, congruent behaviors and kick-butt changes. There’s no 12-page guide to this stuff; you try, you fail, you blow something up… you get some stitches and you get better.
  2. To continue that theme, there’s no experts, only those who try, succeed, then go try again. Even the best experience failure; the difference is, to paraphrase Einstein, knowing that failure has clearly identified one more way that won’t work. In that way, failure is a success. If you look at it with a long-term lens. Peters thinks that no one really knows what they’re doing, so success means trying, succeeding, trying, failing, and then trying again. All the time. I think he’s right.
  3. You’re in a fast group—you’ll need to study. Development is non-stop. Read, listen, learn. Get a coach (ok, that was a veiled marketing thingy), attend training (another thingy), stay on top of your game—it’s evolving, folks, at a pace we can barely keep up with even if we try earnestly. To even think status quo is to rapidly fall behind. I’ve been studying, practicing, and teaching leadership for more than 30 years; I learn something—no kidding—with every new session or client, whether first-line supervisor or top-of-the-food-chain CEO.
  4. It’s the people, stupid. Culture drives organization success, and people drive culture. No office building has ever invented a breakthrough drug or cutting-edge chip. No stock ticker has ever convinced a customer to stick around even though we tried mightily to drive them away (are you listening, United Airlines?). It’s about the people. It’s only about the people. Says Peters, “You’re in the people-development business. If you take a leadership job, you do people. Period.”

I happen to think he’s right.

Organizations don’t succeed because of strategy—any company can buy a strategy from McKinsey, Bain, or even me. They succeed (or not) because of leadership. It’s that simple. And it simply hasn’t changed much in a couple thousand years.

Leadership is dead; long live leadership.

Leadership and the Health of Conflict– Why can’t we all just get along??

Healthy conflict: Good. Unhealthy conflict: Bad. There endeth the lesson…

The key, of course, is knowing the difference.

I frequently say that when reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned people disagree, the organization is better served. By reasonably intelligent, I don’t mean an IQ number—just that the person communicating has enough mental snap to understand and discuss the issues at hand. And by well-intentioned, I’m simply referring to those without some boneheaded personal agenda.

So, we’re working on a complex project. Opinions are buzzing around like mosquitoes during an August Houston evening. We’re cussing, discussing, arguing, persuading, etc. Generally a good time being had by all… and then it happens:

Unhealthy conflict rears its ugly head.

How do we know? Simple… conflict bridges from healthy to unhealthy when those involved in a difference are no longer willing or able to consider others’ views and alternatives, and thereby set up a win-lose confrontation.

No longer willing or able to consider others’ views and alternatives. Even if baked in truth, simmered in fact, and stewed in verifiable data. In other words, we’ve begun using emotions alone to decide the fate of the discussion. Logic has left the building…

You know how you can tell? You hear phrases like, “Yea, well, I just don’t agree…” or “I hear you, I just believe you’re wrong (or whatever emotional outcome is desired).” These, and phrases/words like them, mean we’ve entered the unhealthy zone of conflict, and we’ve got to find some ways to get back on track. For some methods and tools, see my blog post, same subject.

So, who cares? Why bother? What does it matter? Why should we spend one whit of effort on addressing unhealthy conflict? Well, besides the fact I just successfully used “whit” in a sentence (my grandmother would be proud), there are three significant reasons we should be concerned about unhealthy conflicts in an organization:

  1. Most conflict is born of miscommunications. That’s right—the vast majority of conflicts we see and enjoy are driven by communications missteps, rather than an argument of facts.That’s why the “Logic has left the building…” comment above. Factual arguments seldom lead to unhealthy conflict. Disagreements, yes. Arguments, maybe. Near-violent discussions, sometimes. But unhealthy conflict? Rarely, since the very basis of unhealthy conflict is an emotional attachment to a position. That attachment was probably solidified when someone challenged the position with opinion, not fact.
  2. Understanding needs versus wants is the key to resolution. Most of the time, conflicts occur when we focus on our wants instead of our actual needs. If both parties (or however many are involved) would instead determine and focus on their needs, we could make immediate headway.”I need all deliveries to be on time” is likely a want. “It’s important that deliveries be made with enough time for me to inventory and prepare the parts for installation—about 45 minutes—prior to forwarding to manufacturing” is an underlying need that drives more timely deliveries. “On time” is a position taken that doesn’t necessarily represent a factual need—a want. “In time to inventory…” is a need based on demonstrable fact. See the difference?
  3. Unresolved conflicts degrade trust. Always.Sometimes we “get over” a conflict, meaning that we force civility, feign acceptance, and disguise acquiescence as agreement. But the conflict, yet unresolved, still exists. And as long as it exists between people, the level of trust will decline. Since trust is the very currency of leadership, and since enhanced levels of trust allow and encourage discretionary effort, these unresolved conflicts are damaging—to both the leader involved as well as the organization as whole.

When you see a conflict go to the dark side—unhealthy conflict—recognize it for what it is, and address as soon as humanly possible. You’ll be better for it, as will others. Exemplary efforts are what we do, as leaders. Critical here when dealing with unhealthy conflict.

Leadership, Conflict and Moving Forward

Conflict Happens. Or, at least it should. All too often we come across organizations that are dysfunctional not because of conflict, but because everyone is afraid of it. Let me start by saying that if that sounds like your organization, stop NOT fighting, arguing, disagreeing and instead, understand that you are likely running from the solution you seek, or the next product iteration that will shoot you out in front of your closest competitor. Conflict as uncomfortable as it is, is where we make our best decisions and get our best collaboration.

If you claim that you are leading your organization, then know that being a leader is not about IF you will deal conflict but HOW. In fact, few other skills (managing conflict) will shape a person’s career as distinctly as the ability to deal with conflict.

There are literally thousands of books, articles, theories, etc. that are devoted to dealing with conflict. I want to start by making sure you know that your first job as a leader is to make sure that there is conflict, the healthy kind!

At its most basic level, conflict goes hand-in-hand with leadership because leadership often involves challenging people to do what they don’t want to do or see what they simply don’t want to see. Achieving results typically involves moving people out of their comfort zones, making tough decisions that others, might not agree with, and taking actions that create real strife within the organization. Leadership is knowing and helping others see that conflict in those situations is to be embraced rather than avoided and then helping guide them in how to do exactly that.

So how exactly do you embrace and use conflict for successful outcomes? It’s actually pretty simple, but again, not necessarily easy…

1. Don’t take it personally, even if it is! – If you take it personally, it becomes personal and the definition of success changes to winning rather than for the best and right outcome.

2. Shut up and listen – most dysfunctional conflict occurs because we speak to be understood rather than listening to understand. Collaboration requires conflict, but it also requires being open enough to listen.

3. Make sure that elephants can’t hide – if there are elephants in the room, they can and often inhibit the conflict process because people are afraid of getting squashed. While I am not an advocate for animal cruelty, just know that success requires that we slice up the elephant as part of dealing with it. When people are willing to embrace the elephant and do what is necessary, we find that the end the elephants aren’t as imposing as they seem.

4. Focus on the end, not the means – using conflict successfully requires first and foremost that agreement on the desired end is in place. The conflict around means (the how) is important, but not nearly as important as the “what.”

5. Don’t let wall flowers grow – most people dislike conflict and will step back and allow others to take the spotlight and the heat that goes with it. The key with successful conflict and collaboration is that everyone is involved. To ensure that occurs we have to make sure that the environment is ripe for participation (not just given lip service) and that people are constantly invited to participate–not as an after-thought!

6. Remember NASA – while most of us don’t or won’t make decisions that put others at physical risk, the learnings from NASA’s worst disaster can be traced back to fear of conflict and the unconscious rationalizations that our brains seek to justify our inactions. The Challenger disaster could have been prevented, a number of the engineers knew of the risk but the fear of conflict (raising an unpopular thing–risk) prevented the scientists and engineers from speaking up. How often does that happen in our organizations? My bet is, more than we know.

Now you heard me use the word collaboration several times in my note so far, I want to go on record right now and say that collaboration in my mind is NOT what most think it is. Collaboration is not easy, it’s also not an amateur sport. For many, the word collaboration conjures up thoughts of people in a room full of smiles and speaking nicely to each other as they all work to the “ultimate” outcome. While I am sure that might happen somewhere, it is not something I have witnessed personally. Collaboration can be gut wrenchingly uncomfortable, it requires work and energy, and most of all, time. The outcomes however are usually worth all that goes into the process. Remember, however, that how you choose to engage in conflict is a choice. Not every situation requires collaboration, but all are guaranteed to provide at least some level of discomfort.

Leaders are responsible for generating real results, both in the short and long-term. That charge requires being comfortable being uncomfortable because the two are often at odds with each other. It is in that discomfort that a leader can shine as they lead others through seemingly impossible decisions that can bring out the worst in us all.

So how comfortable are you with being uncomfortable? Do you run or avoid dealing with the conflict on your team? Do you allow conflict to stall your team or even your decisions? If so, then pull up your big boy or girl britches and get comfortable being uncomfortable then watch the successes happen.

Feedback 2020- In the future, we’ll actually communicate!

(Note: This is the first in a series focusing on Leadership 2020—what leadership will look like in the year 2020 and beyond. Because as Bob Dylan (youngsters can look him up on Wikipedia) was fond of saying, “Times, they are a’changin’.” Leadership better change with the times, or their relevance will suffer a rapid and painful death.)

Feedback’s not getting easier, just more essential.

Tom Peters once described a really unique method of communicating at a client company… he said they talked to each other. Now this was some years ago, so talking may have morphed into various forms today (email, text, etc.), but the concept is still true-personal communications is a necessity, and will be crucial for leadership success in the future.

This is where you slap your head, à la Homer Simpson, with a resounding D’oh!

Our biggest challenge with feedback is usually the definition: it doesn’t mean “talking to someone,” and it certainly doesn’t mean “telling someone what you think.” Both of those may to the untrained observer, look like feedback. Neither actually is. Let’s cut to the chase…

Feedback is information provided to another person to help him or her grow and improve.

Do I need to repeat that?? If you aren’t trying to help someone grow and/or improve, it isn’t feedback. It may be something else (and likely not something good), but feedback?


As my friend and colleague Alan Weiss says, feedback neither requested nor expected is for the sender, not the receiver. Telling me that I’m fat and ugly (a bold-faced lie, by the way) does nothing to help me improve, which should be the cornerstone of any feedback effort.

And saying “well, it’s true” is no defense. Too many people wield the “truth” like some invisible sword and shield. It’s not. And in feedback, it must be balanced with the overarching need to help. So, how will we need to do that in 2020 and beyond?

Make it personal. Feedback needs to be directed to someone specifically to be relevant. All-hands communications are so frequently ignored, they’ve lost all effectiveness for real feedback. Though face-to-face is best, telephone or emails, or even text (decidedly least effective) directed to a specific individual, with specifics on the feedback topic, are necessary. And never forget; we need to communicate in a manner that can be best received by the other person. Decide in advance whether you’re trying to win, or to change behavior. Your communications-style, method, frequency-will then drive how you execute that feedback.

Be timely. Note, I didn’t say immediate. If you are so fired up right now because someone made such an egregious error that you would like to strangle them, “timely” means waiting until you can give feedback in a way that can be best received by that same person (see above). Preferably sans strangulation.

Being timely also means delivering feedback when its relevance can be understood, and acted upon if necessary. This usually (barring the notable “strangulation exception” mentioned earlier) means as soon as practical to the event, behavior, or action driving the feedback subject.

Feedback must be two-way. Here’s the formula: The more we share relevant parts of ourselves—what we like, don’t like, expect, demand—the more others understand and trust us. The more they trust us, the more they share, and the more we share together, the higher the overall level of trust between us. Trust is the very currency of leadership; we simply cannot succeed without it This is one of the few things that will not change in future years. What may evolve, however, is the manner in which trust is created, built, and fostered.

We must accept—actually insist on—regular feedback from those we lead. Find a way that works; you can always start with getting good at providing feedback yourself, and consistently asking for same. Some may still be hesitant, and you’ll need some help. My Start-Stop-Continue worksheet can sometimes lower the resistance.

Feedback—helpful, relevant, and regular—will be essential to building trust in 2020 and beyond, and trust is essential to leadership. Without trust, there can be no discretionary effort; without discretionary effort, we only get what we pay for. Is that really what we want?

I vote no.

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