Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

Early one morning, a couple of weeks ago, I had a phone conversation with a colleague that, frankly, I wasn’t proud of. As soon as I hung up, I realized what I’d done. When I called back a short while later to apologize, my colleague graciously told me, “You don’t need to say anything—I understand.”

“I appreciate that, but I do,” I said. “I was wrong. I am sorry.”

When most people think about accountability, they immediately look through the lens of how accountable others are to them. But first, we need to look in the mirror and see how accountable we are to ourselves—for who we are and how we act. If we want to know how we’re doing, we only need to count the number of times we say, “I’m sorry”—in all its forms including, “That’s on me,” “That was the wrong call," and “You were right.”

This brings to mind another conversation I had many years ago, early in my tenure as CEO. After a 360-degree review, I flew to New York to meet with a board member in his office to go over the feedback, line by line. “You’re in the left-hand seat in the cockpit now. Your role is different,” the board member told me. “As the leader, don’t tell people what to do—instead, tell them what to think about.”

At the end of our three-hour conversation, the board member said, “I don’t just want you to be successful—I am going to ensure you are successful.” Then he hugged me and gave me an invaluable piece of advice: “Gary, never forget that your job is to make people feel better after every conversation than they did before.”

Deceptively simple, but hard to do. Over the years, I’ve had to stop myself many times—just as I did in that recent phone conversation. No one bats a thousand. We are all works in progress.

At the heart of accountability are two key principles: honesty and humility. With these 2 Hs, we become accountable for who we are—and who we become.

Accountability is substantially different from responsibility. Responsibility is all in the present. Accountability is after the fact, which means owning the outcome—win or lose.

In business, a lack of accountability can make people seem indecisive, especially when the stakes are high. The problem, I’ve observed, is not that people are afraid of making decisions—they’re actually afraid of the consequences of those decisions. When it comes to the accolades and taking credit, many people are quick to use I, me, and my. But when it comes to accountability for failure, it’s too often they, them, and their.

I’ve witnessed this so many times, especially early in the pandemic when organizations needed to make rapid-fire decisions. As one executive confided in me at the time, “They’re all bad decisions. I’m just trying to pick the least worst decisions.” Despite so much hanging in the balance, few people are willing to weigh in with their opinions until others do. It’s like when someone gets caught out in the ocean. Few people will charge into the riptide to save them. But as soon as they finally get closer to shore, everyone rushes in for the rescue—but only up to their knees.

Accountability starts at the top with greater self-awareness. Before the start of this year’s NFL season, Coach Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs, winners of last season's Super Bowl, sat down with us to talk about accountability and performance. “We all have strengths and weaknesses in what we do,” he told us. “Maybe my weaknesses you can take care of, and maybe I can help take care of yours.” In any organization, that’s how the best teams come together—it’s all about others. As the late John McKissick, America’s winningest football coach, once told us, “Coaches don’t win games, players do. Players don’t lose games, coaches do.”

Just as leaders must improve themselves before they can improve their organizations, accountability is also personal first—then team and organizational. Here are some thoughts:

  • Lying Larry. Years ago, I worked with a guy who truly was the smartest person in the room, and when it came to performance, he was amazing. I wouldn’t be surprised if his IQ was 150—but his emotional intelligence was 0. Larry wielded his genius like a weapon and raised arrogance to an art form. Whenever the team had a conference call, Larry would never announce himself—even if someone asked if he was on the line. Instead, he’d lie in wait, ready to strike—to criticize or take credit. And whenever things went wrong, Larry always made sure he was on the right side of history. Larry was notoriously tough to pin down on anything. I remember calling Larry on his cell and he insisted he was in the office, even though I could hear the road noise and the “ping-ping-ping” of the gas pump. Soon it became clear that Larry was not always honest, a reputation that caught up with him eventually. Moral of the story: each of us must strive for a say/do ratio of 1-to-1. We say what we mean, and we do what we say—honestly and with accountability. A person’s word is only as good as their last promise kept.
  • Ego is not your amigo. The cost of self-delusion is high. Research shows that people who greatly overstate their abilities are 6.2 times more likely to derail than those who have self-awareness. If that’s not a case for honesty and humility, I don’t know what is. I once engaged my senior team in a live assessment of my leadership strengths and blind spots, using remote-control “clickers” to ensure anonymity. After each question, the clicker results immediately displayed on a huge screen at the front of the room. As insightful and welcome as that feedback was, there was another purpose for that exercise. I put myself on the spot to model for others a willingness to be vulnerable—and accountable for what others see.
  • “Mirror, mirror.” In the battle to improve performance at all levels, accountability is a surprising secret weapon. On the organization level, our firm’s research reveals five key factors for achieving superior performance. Three are intuitive: purpose, leadership, and strategy. The other two probably don’t come to mind automatically: accountability and capability—but together, they contribute about 50% of organizational performance. The same holds true for individuals—accountability is the all-important foundation. This is “mirror, mirror” time, and we all need to see the unvarnished truth as we face unprecedented levels of change. We hold ourselves accountable to listen first—then lead. That starts with taking a total inventory across the organization—listening for what people are thinking, feeling, and experiencing. Only with a total picture, accurately perceiving today, will we become learning agile—the No. 1 predictor of success. We will “know what to do when we don’t know what to do.”

Making tough decisions—the difficult calls that affect others—is never easy. Harder still is living with the consequences of those decisions. But that is what accountability is all about. Indeed, with honesty and humility, we each must say, “Whatever the outcome, I own it.” In the end, the accountability we wish to see in others starts with each of us.

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