What Accountability Looks Like in Action

Kaylah Rainey signs her letter of intent with Northwestern … and Northwestern becomes a national role model for accountability.

Photo by NOTAVANDAL on Unsplash

The only time you become an effective leader is when you are accountable. And you only become accountable when you are committed. Commitment is at the very core of accountability and true leadership.

If the leader is committed, then everyone will be committed! This is a very simple concept, yet you’d be surprised how many leaders fail to put it into practice … for the simple reason that they don’t yet know what commitment from the top of the team or the organization actually looks like. Very often, they haven’t seen it in real life. Today, I want to give you a great example of an organization whose leadership stepped up by following through on two of the most important commitments any organization can make: the commitment to stand by you, even when all hell breaks loose, and the commitment to live by the standard our word is our bond.

One of the top women’s basketball prospects in the country, Kaylah Rainey, was wrapping up her senior year in high school. Kaylah had thought she would be spending the year as the star point guard for Belleville East High School in Belleville, Illinois. She had every reason to feel great about her future: She had gotten a verbal commitment to play her college ball at a Big Ten powerhouse, Northwestern University. But then she suffered an unexpected setback.

While undergoing a routine physical, Kaylah was diagnosed with a potentially serious heart problem: an anomalous left coronary artery. Fortunately, this problem is easily fixable if it is spotted early, which it was in Kaylah’s case. But the reality now was that Kaylah, who had not yet formalized her agreement with Northwestern, would be undergoing major heart surgery … and missing her entire senior year as a player.

That kind of invasive surgery, its inevitable long rehabilitation schedule, and the uncertainty about any given player’s ability to bounce back, might have raised a lot of question marks the athletic officials at some other school.  But not the leaders at Northwestern.

Those leaders proved themselves to be truly accountable – not only by honoring and formalizing their verbal commitment to Kaylah, but by making it clear to the world they were standing by her, even when something terrible and unexpected happened. They thought about the long term, not just about the next basketball season. They thought about Kaylah the human being, not just about Kaylah the athlete. And for that, they deserve to be recognized.

So here are some questions:

  • How do you think this decision affected Kaylah’s personal level of commitment to her team, once she started playing again?
  • How do you think it affected the level of commitment of all the other players on that team – or for that matter on any other Northwestern team, in any other sport?
  • How do you imagine it is affecting the level of commitment of the students who aren’t athletes? The alumni? The major and minor donors?

Obviously the commitment, and the accountability, of all of these groups is now going up … all because the leaders in the athletic department set the right example. They lived the commitment to stand by the ideals of standing by you no matter what and our word is our bond.

What kind of example do you set in the areas of keeping your word, and standing behind your people, even when all hell breaks loose?


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