I Am Accountable”: the power of an Individual to take responsibility for himself and his actions.

In today’s dimension of collective failure, the amalgamation of the multitudes has rendered a safety net designed to protect populaces from the realities of their misfortunes.  This judiciously entwined network of “excuses” has filtered out any concept of personal responsibility and replaced it with a communal acceptance of mediocrity.  Communal irresponsibility has stripped the concept of Individualism from the “standards of excellence” we deserve and has replaced it with an apathetic; “We are doing our best.”  The permeation of so many people willing to impose their culpability on others while advancing with the expectation of restitution is subverting our Quality of Life.

With this lack of Individualism, is it any wonder the value of Accountability is a vanishing trait in our realm.  Leaders must drive Accountability throughout their organizations

Ayn Rand

before they will be able to realize victory.  Prodigious teams are comprised of great individuals who each possess a passion for their personal success and Accountability.  Without the strength, resolve, and commitment of the Individual, nothing of greatness will be accomplished.  Ayn Rand, author of “Atlas Shrugged” (a must read for every Leader) and creator of the Objectivism movement, defined the significance of Individualism:

The mind is an attribute of the Individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts. It is a secondary consequence. The primary act—the process of reason—must be performed by each man alone. We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man can use his lungs to breathe for another man. No man can use his brain to think for another. All the functions of body and spirit are private. They cannot be shared or transferred. – Ayn Rand

Progressively more people are repudiating Accountability. They are settling contentedly into the Victim Role and abrogating their responsibility for producing quality results.  The real failure here is not in the refusal to embrace Accountability, but it is in the reality that many Leaders are standing on the sidelines watching the concept of Accountability perish.  Numerous Leaders are becoming indulgent and defaulting to the notions of mass mistakes and group let-downs in order to avoid the confrontation of individual failure.  Greatness has never been accomplished by the masses.  No mob, no groups have ever truly constructed any achievement of magnitude.

The reality is that where teams, groups, or masses have accomplished prominence, there were individuals of talent who possessed the determination, inspiration and the aptitude to move agendas forward.  They delivered quality results often surpassing conventional wisdom and expectations.  Exceptional teams are built on magnificent individuals who are directed and motivated towards the same goals with the guidance of an invincible Leader.

In today’s “make everyone feel better” world, we have come to believe that we are able to gather a group of average people, designate them a team, and that by some cosmic power transform them into better collective.  This futile conception is a farce!   The amalgamation of mediocre people creates a unit which is less than average at best.  Without the strength of individuals, greatness will elude your team and you.

Beware the Three Headed Monster, Cerberus which in ancient times kept fallen souls from escaping hell.  Today, Cerberus continues to maintain a constant state of hell by providing comfort and shelter to the unaccountable using his three heads: Consensus, Teamwork, and Collaboration.  Each of these platforms can be implemented to significantly enhance the outcomes of an A-Team, but in the wrong hands they are a “hide-out” for inferior performance.  In these defensive environments, poor performers can harbor their complacency and incompetency while complicating your situation even further.  Let’s take a look at our Three Headed Monster.

Consensus - Teamwork - Collaboration

Consensus has become one of the magical buzz words of past decades.  It is, however, a dangerous concept capable of cleverly castrating the brilliance of individuals and their winning ideas.  After hours of back and forth wordsmithing, I once heard a facilitator use this unscrupulous “consensus building” line which I will never forget.  He looked at the group and asked, “Is there anyone who cannot live with this”.  He had reduced an impressive birth of individual creative but conflicting ideas, meant to advance us forward, and turned them into a watered down impotent bargain.  Consensus accomplishes exactly that, an agreement based on the lowest common denominator. Never let it help you in choosing the path or the resolution which you should follow. Consensus suffocates Accountability allowing everyone to leave the room saying, “That’s wasn’t my idea”.

The next contentious head of Cerberus which attacks Accountability is the misdirected endeavor to boost non-performers by placing them on teams.  Teamwork is a virtuous concept when implemented to bring together talented and proficient individuals for a mission grander than their singular capacities.  Without individuals who value Accountability, the team transforms into a cavern for non-performers to neglect responsibility and deliver blame to others.  A leader must understand he cannot make a team accountable.  Individuals accomplish goals and therefore, it is a collation of individual efforts that accomplish team goals.  As a Leader you need to assemble teams based on individual strengths and not as a means to prop-up the inadequacies of non-performers.

The third head of the monster is Collaboration.  What a wonderful word, Collaboration. Doesn’t it even sound like fun?  “We are all going to sit around and collaborate this afternoon”.  Who wouldn’t want to collaborate?  Collaboration relies on the concept that people are going to comfortably lounge around discussing subjects, problems, or ideas and based on this interaction a magic spark of genius or brilliance will surface.  There is really nothing new about the idea of collaboration. Successful people have been collaborating forever with each other.  Just as with teamwork, if you want to lead collaboration to success, you better have the right people in the room to start with.  Randomly putting average performers together to “brainstorm” does not raise the group’s intelligence.  Great individuals make great collaborations and then go on to produce results.

As a Leader you must know how to avoid the jaws of consensus, teamwork and collaboration when they are being used as a shield for non-performance and un-Accountability.  Do not be tempted by the lure of speculation that “Tomorrow’s Leader” will focus on these three monsters to get results.  Nothing is changing tomorrow that will allow a lack of Accountability to prosper.  Individual Accountability contains the power to accomplish tomorrow’s goals.  It is your responsibility to assimilate the power of Accountable Individuals to reach new levels of impacting results.

If you cannot drive Accountability on an individual basis you will have a failing team. Each person must understand what they are to deliver.  These deliverables are non-negotiable requirements.  There are No Excuses.

The Oz Principle

If you are looking for a great framework on which to build a culture of Accountability, spend some time with the “Oz Principle”, by Craig Hickman, Tom Smith, and Roger Connors.  The Oz Principle provides assessment tools for Accountability and builds a common language for what they term, “Above the Line” and “Below the Line” performance.  Above the Line actions lead to Accountability and Performance while Below the Line activities result in the “Blame Game” and Excuses.  Adopt these principles into your organization and you will see an immediate improvement.

Managers can easily undertake a “witch-hunting” methodology when trying to build an accountable organization.  They take what should be an inspiring enriching program and turn it into a hammer which sends their team scattering into turmoil.  Instead of Accountability, they only manage to accelerate the “Blame Game”.  If you have assembled an A-Team of accountable talented individuals and you support their values with a culture of honesty and recognition, the Accountability formula becomes self-fulfilling.

Truly accountable people have a severe revulsion to those who play the blame game.  As their Leader, they expect you to something about this “dead weight” so they can continue to perform with teammates who share like values and competencies.  If you identify certain people on your team who possess an aversion towards Accountability, you must remove them; they cannot be fixed or motivated into becoming accountable.  For the remaining performers, you need only two magic phrases.  A truly accountable person will spare the witch-hunt and proactively step up and admit fault.  Just look this person in the eye and say. “Bill, I am disappointed, I know you can do better next time”.  And for the accountable person who delivers results with success, all that is required is a heartfelt, “Sally, I am very proud of you”.  No drama!  With the right A-Team Individuals, it is really this simple.

The Street Smart Leader understands that once he finds accountable Individuals, only then can he put them into situations of teamwork and collaboration and expect results.  Always remember, as a Leader you are ultimately accountable for everything that happens and everything that doesn’t.  At the end of the day it all comes down to the decision you have made.  There are No Excuses!  Tomorrow’s Leaders will be already setting the pace and embracing their own true Individual Accountability?

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I have witnessed some of the best and brightest MBAs crash and burn, like Icarus with his wings of wax,never to again ascend.  They are extraordinarily smart individuals.  They are amazingly articulate.  And damn if they do not know the answers to all matters. These confident and glassy contenders are able to decipher complex business conundrums and possess the facility to deliver sophisticated presentations to corroborate their campaign.  These managers are extremely proficient, cogent, brainy businesspeople. But repeatedly they take off towards the brightness of their ideas only to tumble back to failure.  What is it about their “book smarts” that thwarts their flight from soaring with their strategies?   Street Smart Leaders embrace an imperative truism, the sine qua non: Business is easy – People are hard.

All of the acumen in the world falls short if one does not understand the enigmatic component created once “people” are introduced into the equation.  There are a few exceptional careers where an individual’s solitary efforts are developed in a bubble to produce results.  But in the overwhelming majority of situations, people are necessary if we are to materialize concepts into actions.

So often, I see competent managers charged with a task fail to coalesce their team of people.  They self-sabotage their own brilliance and watch their plan plummet from the sky.  They focus on the plan, disregarding the importance of connecting their strategy to their people.  This snubbing of the human component creates an undercurrent of defiance leading to an imperceptible revolution.  The insurgency occurs because the manager has included “people” as one of the “things” in his plan.  For a Leader to implement a strategy or idea, the Leader must grasp he is asking “people to change”.  His plan’s success is reliant on his ability to mobilize human beings into action and construct change.

People are vital to accomplishing your goals.  They are diverse and complicated.  To be an effective Leader you must focus a significant part of your studies on the behavioral sciences.  What are the motivations of people?  The application of behavioral concepts to real world situations crafts a “business psychology” of people at the “street level”.  The more proficient you are at understanding the personal motivation of each member of your team, the better change agent you will become.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

As a Leader it is your obligation to make change happen.  You are dealing with change issues involving broken and ineffective practices or you are moving your team in a new direction towards a competitive advantage.  Developing the strategies and plans for your program are characteristically a straight forward process.  You can ordinarily figure out what you need to do in business.  Getting people to embrace and carry out your plans is where the Leadership Challenge lies.  So let’s start with a fundamental of business psychology that you need to understand if you are going be successful with moving people to Change.

Fundamental Number One:  People love their misery.  Yes I’ll say that again, people love their misery.  I’m amazed at how often I see people in miserable conditions.  Nothing is going their way, they are frustrated to the extreme and at the brink of emotional (sometimes physical and deadly) breakdowns and yet when you approach them and start to discuss the idea of a change taking place, they seize their misery and clutch it tight to their guts refusing to release it.  What could be so petrifying about change?  They are unconsciously terrified to move from something they know so well, to something having an ambiguous result.  For most human beings this is a very scary proposition.  For them to let go of their misery they must trust that you, as their Leader, have a better place to go.  Many of them have been disappointed throughout their entire careers and they will only let go of the misery when they have no other choice.  A good leader knows how to inspire trust in the plan and emancipate the misery.

As time passes, with some attention to the subject of business psychology, you will get an overall general feel of what you need do as a manager to move people one way or the other.  But if you truly want to excel with the “people” factor of business, it is necessary to get involved with the people.  This means getting down to an individual level with the people on your team and taking the time to think about who they are and what makes them tick.  What makes them happy or excited and when are they skeptical and resistant?   You do not need to have a psychology degree to understand the elementary drivers of an individual’s inspiration.  It is a matter of dedicating generous time and paying close attention to your team.  It entails more than the time in your office with them sitting across the desk.  It necessitates time in their environments where you can listen and hear what is imperative to them. 

Remember it is your people who are going to assassinate your plan, often for reasons they do not even comprehend.  It’s your obligation as a leader to be proactive and stay ahead of them.  Understand what the motivations of each member of the team are.  There are those that have seen it all before.  They feel they have heard of all the changes you describe and invested themselves only to find disappointment.  They would rather hold onto their misery than put themselves out there gain and suffer another disappointment.  Or there are those who hold their misery because they are content with the routine; a daily routine which has become manageable and “easy” for them to navigate.  And there are those who will just refuse to accept someone may have better ideas.  There are thousand, maybe a million, different situations like this, each connecting someone’s resistance to the idea of change.  Regardless of the reasons for their confrontation to change, they are really suffering … miserably suffering. 

To become a strong leader you need to be strong on the people level.  Regardless of your talents, IQ, education, or your planning ability, if you are not able to move people forward, you will fail.

Leading people from misery to change involves three steps.  First, you need to build trust with people.  This comes from having a personal relationship with them.  Someone has to feel they know you and that you understand them before they are going to trust you. Once you have this basic trust established, you are then able to use it to leverage a Change Proposition. The change proposition is quite simple to extend.  The essential element is to remove the risk from the situation.  Your team must understand that the success of the project is their success.  They will have dedicated themselves to an outcome they can be proud of.  But more importantly, they must trust that if they give their comprehensive effort and the projects fails, the accountability will rest squarely on you, their Tough Leader.   It will be your failure.  Think about how many mangers you have seen set up the change proposition 180 degrees from this.  They quickly take the credit for success and blame the team for failure.   This is an anticipated misery far greater than the one they are clutching onto.  The change proposition is victorious when you generate a situation where people have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Next, build a roadmap of your vision to inspire your team.  It is important for them to see your vision of the end result and how much better they will be, but they are not leaving their misery to jump off of a cliff with you.  You must illustrate a piece by piece methodology where they can see realism and success in incremental steps.  Only then will they begin to ease the grip on their misery and grasp change.  By moving them through your change process one successful step at a time, you will find that they begin to take each new step faster and faster.  Eventually you can lead a team to running if they trust you and see the firm ground ahead.

Finally, celebrate the successes with your team.  Too many managers fail to become great leaders simply because they do not know how to distinguish their team’s achievements.  Changing is difficult.  Even success can leave a team exasperated and drained.  Without acknowledgment, your goal has been accomplished but the prominent opportunity has been squandered.  Each successful change should propel the next one.  It is important to replenish, re-invigorate, and re-inspire your team for the next challenge.  Celebration doesn’t mean you should throw a party for every small accomplishment.  But it does mean that every small accomplishment should be recognized allowing each person to absorb a moment of pride.

The change proposition is a circular event.  Trust strengthens (both ways) with each success and builds for the next project.  The next roadmap becomes clearer and your team becomes more willing to move forward on faith.  And everyone learns that change is not daunting as they celebrate progress.  With each cycle your team picks up speed, momentum, and efficiency and your pursuits become easier.

People really aren’t so hard, if you begin with the realization that it really is all about people.  Everyone has plans and everyone has ideas.  Everyone has great products and services.  But in reality, nothing changes until people change.  You need to mobilize your team in order to deliver change.  You need to gain their trust, show them the plan, and create a perpetual cycle of success for your team and for yourself.  There are many other business psychology issues you’ll have to learn to become a great Street Smart Leader.  But if you can disentangle the bonds of misery among your team, you will witness a remarkable proliferation in your A-Team’s accomplishments.  Business is easy – People are hard… Until you realize it is the people who take flight that change the world.

LUKE
Yeah, they sure do make a lot of
cold, hard, noise, Captain.
The Captain feeds his fury staring, then reaches out his
hand and Boss Paul lays the blackjack in it. As the chain
guards finish and stand up, trembling with rage, the Captain
takes a convulsive step forward and brings the sap down behind
Luke’s ear. As Luke tumbles down the littered embankment
toward the men:
CAPTAIN
Don’t you never talk that way to me!
You hear? You hear? Never!
His rage subsides and his voice becomes calm, reasonable.
CAPTAIN
(to the men)
What we got here is failure to
communicate. Some men you can’t reach,
that is they just don’t listen when
you talk reasonable so you get what
we had here last week, which is the
way he wants it, well he gets it,
and I don’t like it any better than
you men.

Click for Movie Clip

Many of you will recognize these famous lines from Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman.  For those of you under the age of 35, you really should check out this classic from Netflix.  Cool Hand Luke is the moving character study of a non-conformist, anti-hero loner who bullheadedly resists authority and the Establishment.  One line of the film’s dialogue from Strother Martin, who plays the prison warden called Captain, is often quoted: “What we’ve got here is…failure to communicate.” Anyone seeing the movie realizes that Luke is very aware of what Captain is communicating; he just doesn’t accept it.

For years there has been a colossal focus around the concept known as a Lack of Communication.  The prevalence of the so-called communication deficiency has become a magnetic reason for which to attract every problem.  The more heed I give to this issue, the more I am convinced there is no such thing as a “lack of communication”.  This vague ambiguous term has been propagated to justify every fault from why the paperclips ran out, to the Strategic Plan’s failure, and the company’s underperformance.  The communication failure movement has become one of the great “cop-outs” of our time.  As a Leader, you must eradicate this excuse from your business.  The elimination of this one term from your business will immediately improve cooperation, attainment of goals, and your overall business performance.

I recognize the implication of my position.  It concludes all of those classes and seminars you have participated in, from all of those communication consultants were an immense waste of time and money.  And even worse, rather than aiding problematic situations, they have been harmful.  Yes, that is exactly my conviction.  Communication facilitators who have come to your company and lectured about listening, personality styles, diversity, the role the sexes, etc., were misguided.  Sure there is value in being a better listener and understanding others perspectives and traits, but the basic premise, that if we just learn to “talk” to each other correctly everything else will work itself out is vastly erroneous.  Communication experts and consultants are today’s business “snake oil” salesman.

Anyone who works with me will hear me refer to the concept of “root cause” analysis. The root cause is the underlying reason a problem exists.  In my article, Creating Great Ideas by Exercising Your Mind, I compare root cause methodology to a four year old asking, “Why?”  If you’ve studied and implemented this concept, you already realize that unless you get to the root cause of situations, you really are just putting impermanent Band-Aids on potentially permanent problems.  You are reacting to fires and creating the subsequent emergency.  The idea or concept of “communication problems” is about as far away from a “root cause” analysis as you can get.  Communication problems are only symptoms at best.  If you are going to be a Street Smart Leader you need to realize that communication is never the problem.  You need to start asking “Why?”

Let me give you an example: Joe and Sally have a project assigned to them.  They both go off and begin to work on the project.  Two weeks later the project is due and after reviewing their work you discover you are completely disappointed with their product.  Their work is inconclusive, incomplete, inaccurate, and you are baffled by their inability to have concluded the assignment properly.  As you expound your frustration to them, they begin to ponder the excuses as to why they should not be held accountable.

First, they remember the communication consultant who came to the company last quarter.  And since it was made clear in the classes that communication problems are the “root of all evil”, they quickly go there.  They assert there must have been a communication problem between you and them for the work to be so far off from your expectation. Somehow you didn’t explain the task properly or they took away the wrong information or concept of the task. Now you know better, and although it would be uncomplicated to concur with them, endorsing the communication consultant’s viewpoint, your stomach binds into a knot.  As a leader, you know this isn’t right.  You know they were furnished clear concise directives.  You expected them, with their level of experience and competency, to fill in the blanks and perform; because after all it is not your job to hold their hands through every step of an assignment. You make this clear.

Next, they look at each other and begin to discuss the communication failure they must have had between themselves.  Apparently they didn’t have enough time to meet, or when they did meet couldn’t agree, or maybe they just miss understood what each other’s was going to be doing in terms of completing the task.  Regardless of the excuses, they are trying to avoid accountability on the basis of a communication problem.  As a leader you must crush the notion that communication problems can be used as the excuse for non-performance.

If you want to propel beyond communication problem excuses and solve issues, you must drive down to “root cause” analysis.  Often the root cause is simple; Joe and Sally just don’t like each other and so they can’t work well on a project together.  This is remedied by sitting them down and enlightening them on the realization that their personal disputes are the reason why their communication broke down.  Clarifying how petty differences will not constitute a motive for underperformance in their jobs and that regardless of how they feel about work towards each other, you expect them to leave-it-at-the-door and do their work professionally.  If this reoccurs you need only make it clear that if they cannot perform, irrespective of conflicts, you will find someone else who can.

The root cause of communication difficulty can often be a more complex reason such as the constraints of poor organizational structure or a non-cohesive gravely designed process.

Organizational difficulties can be one of the more impenetrable root causes of poor communication.  Most likely, you do not possess the authority to reorganize the company.  But you can understand where organizational breakdowns are occurring and why.  For example, does your company have a highly compartmentalized structure with different departments pursuing diverse goals and incentives?  Is the structure counterproductive to the pursuit of inter-departmental cooperation?  You may not be able to change the structural drivers that are reinforcing uncooperative behavior, but you are able to reach across those departmental walls and build bridges which heighten your team’s attainment of goals.  Some of those bridges will be from personal bonds with the leaders of other groups, grounded in mutual respect, trust and concern for the mutual welfare of each other.  Some bridges may just be the result of creating win-win situations completely motivated by the self-interests of both people on either side of the wall.  Regardless, you must find a way for your team to succeed with whatever organizational challenges exist.

Let’s take a moment and look at where a process problem is sometimes blamed on communication.  Process improvements and re-engineering efforts are major subjects and there is an abundance of books and expert programs which can be engaged to streamline your company efforts.  One of the simplest and most effective tools to evaluate your processes is a Deployment Chart.  A Deployment Chart is a matrix based flow chart showing the relationships between process participants. Learn to examine how you are asking people to do things to determine where the breakdown is originating.  Evaluating and redefining your processes to ensure a smooth flow can eliminate what may appear to be a communication problem.

There are many other “root causes” that disguise themselves as communication problems.  Some of them are complex and multilayered and require in-depth analysis.  More often than not, they are the progenies of lack of commitment, lack of focus and lack of creativity.  Once you barricade “lack of communication” as an excuse for non-performance and demand to understand the root cause of your team’s failures, you will activate an immediate acceleration in accomplishment. I realize there may be some communication consultants out there, who upon reading this, will conclude that I just do not understand communication issues.  I would contend it is the superficial ideology of these consultants that is at the “root cause” of many communication issues.  I challenge you to think seriously on this subject and dismiss the tide of brainwashing which has overcome us in recent years.

You need to be a Tough Leader and deal with the hard subjects behind your problems.  You need to scrape back the artificial answers such as “lack of communication”, and excavate your genuine challenges.  Only then are you going to discover tangible solutions. Avoid the “feel good’ fallacy of better communication. Deal with the material issues and produce substantial results.  Those real results will be the building blocks for your Winning A-Team.  And one more thing… it is amazing how well a Winning A-team can communicate!