As accountable leaders, we need to look closely at the difference between being accountable to and being accountable for. That difference has an impact on our ability to effectively lead our teams.
When you are accountable to someone, what does that mean exactly? When I ask leaders this question, I follow up by asking them to give me examples of some of the people they are accountable to. I hear things like: My boss. My board of directors. My customers. My spouse. Those are all good answers… but why are they good answers?
Next I will ask: Who are you accountable for? The answers that come back usually sound like this: My kids. My employees. My aging parent. My spouse. (Notice the overlap on that last one.) These, too, are good answers. But if we cannot easily explain why they are good answers, we are missing an important part of the accountability picture. We really want to have more than just an intuitive grasp of these two different dimensions of accountability, because if we do not understand what they are, how they work, and when they overlap, we are going to have a hard time improving. So let’s take a moment to unpack this.
When you are accountable to someone, that person is responsible for some aspect of your well-being. Also: That person affects your life beyond the surface level. That is what we mean when we say that we are accountable to someone.
So is your boss responsible for some aspect of your well-being? Sure. And does your boss affect your life beyond a surface level? Absolutely. You are accountable to your boss.
Here is another example. When you were nine years old, weren’t your parents responsible for some aspect of your well being? Check. And did they affect your life beyond the surface level? You bet! You were accountable to them.
Now here is an interesting question: Are we accountable to the people who report to us? Well, go down the checklist. Are the people who report to you responsible for some aspect of your well being? Of course! If the department does not perform, that definitely affects your well-being. And do they affect your life beyond a surface level? They certainly do!
So now we know what accountable to means. And we also know that, contrary to what you may have heard, or the example you may have been given, leaders really are accountable to those they lead.
Next, let’s look at accountable for. This signals a change in the relationship. When you are accountable for someone, you are responsible for some aspect of that individual’s well-being, and you affect their life beyond a surface level.
So as a leader, don’t we impact everyone on our team? We are responsible for some aspect of each individual team member’s well-being, and we definitely affect their life beyond a surface level. We are accountable for our team members.Leadership in its very essence is taking on accountability for those people we lead.
Another great example here is the aging parent. My mother just turned 93. And she still gets around pretty well, but you know what? She lives in an independent living facility and my wife pays all her bills. I manage all her assets. Along with my brother, I am now accountable for her well-being. I have to make sure that her bills get paid. I have to make sure that she is in a safe environment. The relationship has changed, and recognizing that change is critical.
Being accountable for someone means there is an element of stewardship to the relationship. If I make a mistake when I am investing my assets, well, I’m not a happy guy, but it is my money, and that is just what happened. I will make it up. But I cannot make a mistake managing my mother’s assets. Why not? Because I am accountable for her. There is a higher level of commitment and responsibility that comes with accountable for.
Here are some important takeaways from this discussion:
- We are not accountable to everyone; we are only accountable to some people.
- We are not accountable for everyone, either. We know those people that we are accountable for.
- Some people — our spouse, for instance — will fall into both groups.
- If you are accountable to, that does not necessarily mean that you are also accountable for the person… but if you are accountable for, you are always also accountable to.
- Which brings us back to the most important takeaway: as accountable leaders, we always need to remember that everyone that we are accountable for, we are also accountable to!
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