Accountability: There is no effective leadership without it

I recently participated in an interview with an on-line journal that wanted to probe more intentionally into the question of leadership and accountability.   The observation of the editor was that leaders do not want to be held accountable and more, that the more senior or successful the leader the less likely that they are genuinely accountable for the quality and character of their work.   This rightly concerned the person conducting the interview with me and in the process I think I was able to offer some ways of thinking about accountability and the practices of accountable that merit consideration.

In one sense, it all comes down to two things.  First, we need leadership; and accountability is not about thwarting the capacity for the organization to have the leadership in I place to make the decisions that need to be led, to articulate the vision that needs to be profiled and to sustain the emotional health and resilience that is needed for an organization or a church to be effective. 

Accountability is not about “clipping wings”.  It is not about limiting power – by which I mean the power to do what needs to be done so that the mission of the organization happens.   In fact, when accountability is done right, it actually strengthens the capacity of the leader to lead. 

Second, though, we must stress:   leadership without accountability is dangerous for both the organization and the person in a leadership position.   Leaders who do not want to be held accountable or leaders who feel that they are above accountability are a problem:  if they have some kind of special ‘anointing’ and are only accountable to God or that they feel that given that they have been so successful and led the organization so far that they are, one might say, above being questioned.   It has gone to their heads; they think that on some level the ‘divine right of kings’ applies to them. 

This is why it is imperative that early on both the organization and the leader have an agreed upon understanding:  these are the practices and principles that will shape our shared life.   We believe in and will allow our leader to lead.   Someone needs to lead and there is no effective leadership by committee.   Someone has to be able to say “the buck stops here.”   But then, we also agree that leadership and the decisions of leadership need to be both accountable and transparent.   Wise leaders make this standard to the way in which they operate.  And boards, for example – whether a church board or the board of a non-profit – are comfortable with and willing to tend to the ways in which the work of the leaders is strengthened and encouraged through simple but consistent practices of intentional accountability. 

In a coming blog I will provide an overview of some of those best practices.   For now, though, let me conclude with this.   You need to be able to answer the question:  to whom am I accountable for the quality and character of my work?  And it cannot and will not be everyone or anything:  it needs to be very clear – thus, for example, I am accountable to the board of governors of the university.   And a pastor is not and cannot be accountable to the whole congregation.   It does not work; there has to be an entity – typically a board – that provides this essential function.   Further, it also needs to be clear how that body does that work of accountability.   Thus the prime minister of Canada is accountable to parliament.  The president of the US is responsible to Congress and eagerly affirms the checks and balances that go with being the president.   As president of a university, I am accountable to the board, but I still need to ask:  are they actually able to hold me accountable . . . that is, are there mechanisms in place that they know are the means by which my work is confirmed and strengthened through transparency and accountability?   

So, I will be addressing three questions:  to whom are you accountable?   How does this accountability actually function?  And for what are you accountable?

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.