Why is accountability important in leadership?

October 20, 2021

The purpose of this article is to focus primarily on frontline leader accountability. It will help you understand what accountability in leadership really means, why it is important, the benefits of accountability for your team. I'll also look at practical ways as to how you can foster a culture of accountability in your team culture.  

What is responsibility and accountability in leadership?

Becoming a great leader starts with an understanding of the traits that define great leaders and the common skills many possess. The demands placed on leaders has increased in a remote working world and yet the need for performance remains. 

Accountability takes many forms - goals, deadlines and milestones, for example - but at its core, it's simply holding people accountable for results. This sounds simple and obvious, but in my experience as an entrepreneur and leader, it's often the biggest barrier to success.

Why must a good leader be accountable?

Accountability is a key component in leadership.

Essentially, it is the act of holding yourself accountable to others. To be an effective leader, you must be able to hold yourself accountable for your actions and decisions, as well as the actions and decisions of those who report to you. 

If people don’t feel accountable they won’t take personal responsibility for themselves and they won’t be held accountable by others or by management for their own actions or those of others on their team.

It is built around expectations. It’s about being clear with everyone involved about what you expect from them and why. When people feel accountable for their actions, they take ownership of them and can easily fix mistakes they make.

A recent study by Professor Gary Latham of the Australian Graduate School of Management found that business leaders who possessed the qualities of accountability and integrity were more likely to outperform their peers.

So what are the characteristics and behaviours of accountable leaders?  These are five traits I believe are common in accountability based leadership.

5 Ways to Demonstrate Leadership Accountability & Ensure It in Others

There are many behaviours that are modelled by both accountable leaders and their teams in service of creating a better performing culture.

Traits of an accountable leader - 1. Communication

Being able to communicate effectively is vital to get alignment and clarity of purpose in your team.   People need to know that their leaders are capable of giving them clear direction. If communication is vague, teams lose direction and and become disengaged.  

Are your team clear about the expectations? 

If you ask someone to do something and they don't follow through, there's a chance they didn't hear or understand what you said, or that their mind was somewhere else. This can lead to confusion and frustration, both of which will undermine the results of your efforts

Creating opportunities for feedback in your team is an excellent way to understand where communication is falling down and how that can be improved. 

Leaders of remote teams need to consider what is the most effective medium for communication.  Any technology tools needs to support accountability, help monitor the focus areas and tasks as a means of ensuring alignment.

Building trust in this environment requires intentionally focusing on creating opportunities for your team to have a shared experience, get to know each other and build a sense of camaraderie and teamwork.

Traits of an accountable leader - 2. Delegation 

Hovering over the shoulder of an employee (even virtually) isn’t an effective way to build a strong team culture built on accountability.

Focus on being organised and helping your team understand their focus areas and how you can support them in achieving their goals.  

When people feel accountable for their actions, they take ownership of them and can easily fix mistakes they make. This builds trust between leaders and their team members.

If you want to be a good leader, start by making sure your partners feel accountable for their actions. Focus them on holding the team to the same standards as you would yourself and keep them invested in whatever goal you've set together as a team.

Traits of an accountable leader - 3. Listening 

Whether remote-first or office first, listening paths are now an essential part of good leadership.

Creating an environment where your team are heard, areas of concern shared and opportunities for growth seized is a crucial part of developing a culture of accountability. 

A recent report by McKinsey suggested teams favour leaders who empower others and promote an open environment over those who practice authoritative or consultative leadership.

There has been an significant increase in the need to demonstrate you are a supportive and caring leader. This is closely followed by being employee-focused which need to start with listening.

Creating this feedback forum enables teams to better understand each other, the factors that may be impacting their performance and how we can improve this.

A crucial part of accountability is creating a sense of trust in the group where the team can be open and vulnerable. A shared sense of ownership of team goals and a strong feedback environment will lead to better outcomes. 

How often are you checking in with your team at the moment?

For remote managers, what technology are you using to provide you with meaningful data?

Is everyone aware of potential areas that might impact our goals?

Is anyone struggling or at risk of burnout?

Traits of an accountable leader - 4. Ownership 

In terms of accountability in leadership, we must first be accountable for our own actions.

Self-accountability dictates that leaders make sure they set high standards for themselves and map out on paper how they will get there. If you want your team to be accountable for their actions then we must first be accountable for our own actions.

Take responsibility for mistakes. If you make a mistake, own it and make amends as soon as possible.

If you take responsibility for something going wrong, your team will see that as an indication that you can be honest and learn from your mistakes. You haven't given up on trying to improve .

Traits of an accountable leader - 5. Investment in your people 

You must be willing to invest in people so they feel appreciated and respected.

If you show employees trust by giving them responsibilities and opportunities, they will feel more invested in their work and will be more accountable for how they perform.

As employees feel more valued by their employers, they will want to take more ownership of their roles and consequently become more accountable for their actions. 

As a remote leader, how are you getting to know your team? 

What is their purpose and what is motivating them to succeed in their role? 

Do you need to consider some face to face interactions as part of your quarterly plans? 

Benefits of accountability for a leader

The benefits of accountability are numerous. 

Not only is it a tool to help you achieve your own goals; it also inspires the people around you. You need to constantly track, measure and review results. You need to continually assess your performance and constantly consider ways that you can improve it.

Better teamwork

Accountability encourages employees to take ownership of their work and provides an opportunity for them to work together toward a common goal. This increases productivity and commitment among workers, which allows them to work more efficiently and successfully toward meeting organisational goals.

Alignment

The reason accountability works so well is because it gets everyone on the same page and makes it easier for them to see what needs to get done and how they fit into the bigger picture. Many of the most effective teams I’ve worked with have an unspoken agreement to seek feedback and endorsement from someone else first.

Engagement

Setting clear expectations and providing real purpose for teams is an excellent way to enhance employee engagement. Setting these standards and then holding the standard each month builds that Culture of  Accountability from leaders ensuring a strong performance culture is created.. 

Productivity

It's easy to see the benefit of accountability by looking at the cost of not doing it. Not following through on commitments  can lead to serious consequences, including missed deadlines, missing out on important tasks. Your team will also become disengaged if deadlines are missed, standards are not being set and there is no accountability. 

The Buck Stops Here: A Culture of Accountability Drives Effective Leadership

It can be easy to create the basis for a culture of accountability, but it’s not as easy to maintain one. And not all industries have mastered the art. You'll see from the graph below, research has shown that the travel, transportation and logistics industries struggle to embed accountability into their culture.

Once you cultivate a culture of accountability, you need to make sure it doesn’t wither away. Without an established culture, your employees will likely start thinking of their time as their own and won’t worry about creating a culture that inspires accountability.

So what can leaders do to keep a culture that inspires accountability going strong?


The first thing a leader should do is ensure that his or her team understands the importance of being accountable.

It is crucial that you as a leader make sure everyone is aware of their own responsibilities. Then direct people toward what they can do to become more accountable for themselves. As you work with your employees, you can help them understand their roles and how they fit into the greater picture.

To finish off, here are some things you can implement straightaway as a leader that will help you stay on-task and accountable:

  • Schedule check-ins.
  • Regular feedback sessions. 
  • Clear strategic goals that are mapped against monthly focus areas (OKRs or a version of this could work well)
  • Be clear on priorities in terms of your goals, all goals can’t be equal 
  • Use Technology to enhance alignment and transparency so everyone is aware of focus areas. 
  • Don't micromanage, but be clear about expectations and priorities.
  • Set deadlines.

Thanks for reading.

James Brogan
CEO and Co-founder. Former MD of Legacy Communications. Ex Dublin footballer and All-Ireland winner.
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