Abdicating Accountability

It is 2 a.m. and Phillip, VP of safety, is making his rounds. He has been on the job for more than a year and reports directly to Bill, the COO. Since the plant runs 24/7, this shift is no less important to profitability than the day shift.

Phillip rounds the corner on the No. 4 line and sees an open power panel near the largest processing belt. He immediately calls the shift foreman. When she arrives, his comments go something like this: “Karen, if Bill saw this he would skin both of us. Please get this taken care of before he sees it – and you know he will!”

Phillip may feel that he is putting himself on the same team as Karen or being friendlier by colluding with her. In fact, however, he is abdicating his responsibility to the company, to Bill and to Karen. His request would be better grounded in the need to maintain safety and to remind Karen of her own accountability. Instead, he has borrowed against Bill’s reputation for integrity and harmed his own.

One of the most damaging things leaders can do is to abdicate the accountability that comes with their jobs. Yet it is something I see on a regular basis.

The reason that this particular leadership challenge is so pernicious is simple. Once a leader abdicates personal responsibility, it is very difficult to reclaim. And it often shows up as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, appearing simply as an effort to be likeable or one of the gang.

We also see this behavior in public communications. Every time I hear a politician arguing for his or her strategy or version of a bill by evoking the authority of the American people, I want to throw a yellow flag on the field.

In our currently polarized environment, the country is divided on pretty much any issue. So when someone stands up to say, “The American people are clear. They want to see us …” followed by his own idea or solution, he is by default taking license with about half of the population.

The American people may, for instance, be united in a desire to end the fiscal challenges we face. But no one can claim to speak for the country with credibility when he argues for a particular solution. Just as no one knows what will happen based on a particular course of action, no one can credibly claim a mandate for that course of action. When a leader purports to speak for others without permission or proof, that leader has sacrificed credibility on the altar of wanting to look powerful.

One of the hardest things for newly promoted executives to do is to promote themselves mentally and emotionally into the new job. Taking full responsibility not only for the authority delegated to them, but for the accountability of their position as well, is critical to a successful start. It means dealing directly with doubts or concerns about conflict.

Exerting personal authority does not mean becoming a jerk. Phillip, for example, might have handled the situation better by saying to Karen: “You are responsible for safety on this line. I thought you should see this. I know that you know what needs doing. When will this be fixed?” In this way, he keeps accountability on Karen and makes it clear what his expectations are and demonstrates his trust that she is capable.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, March 9, 2009.