Personal Accountability: The Double-edged Sword That Leaders Must Wield

By Ron Price

The Complete Leader defines personal accountability as the capacity to be answerable for personal actions.

Simple as the definition is, personal accountability can often be difficult to master due to the temptation to blame a circumstance on another person, defend poor choices and actions, deny the reality of a situation, or simply put blinders up.

For a leader, personal accountability is a double-edged sword: It means both taking responsibility for when things go wrong and taking responsibility to make sure things go right.

First is the willingness to take responsibility when things don’t go as planned. Great leaders begin by asking, “What role did I play in the failure?” They don’t start by pointing fingers and finding someone or something to blame.  

The second part is being willing to say, “I will take responsibility to make the goal happen.” There is risk associated with that; it takes courage to intentionally accept and pursue a goal. A leader who is personally accountable will not allow any excuses for not achieving the goal. He or she knows that there will be obstacles, but still finds a way through, over or around the obstacles. The solution is finding a way through them to achieve the goal.

Personal accountability is a critical competency for leaders. When we help companies create job profiles, we find that in nearly every position, personal accountability is considered “mission critical.” It is one of the top five skills necessary for success in almost every job we profile. This finding holds true in our work across industries and even across countries. 

There is also a direct tie between self-confidence and personal accountability. Leaders will struggle with being personally accountable beyond their level of self-confidence. It takes maturity and self-esteem to take responsibility when things go wrong and to have the courage to make the commitment to make things go right in the future. 

Here are some questions to help you examine your capacity for personal accountability:

  • How often do you make excuses?
  • How often do you get distracted by less important priorities and fail to follow through?
  • How well do you negotiate what others expect and regularly seek feedback?
  • How well do you accept responsibility for your own emotions?
  • How often do you take the time to critique, analyze, and learn from your mistakes and failures?

One effective way to develop personal accountability is to help others achieve it. In their book Leadership Simple, Steve and Jill Morris share the choice theory model to develop accountability in people. It starts by asking five questions:

  1. What do you want?
  2. What are you doing to get it?
  3. Is it working?
  4. What are some alternatives that you could consider?
  5. What are you going to do?

These questions are a method of helping people recognize the choices they are making and the actions they can take to get what they want. Their definition of personal accountability is “owning the consequences of your choices in delivering the agreed-to results and helping others do the same.” Personal Accountability is a life-long journey in your quest to become a complete leader.