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The Buck Stops Here: The Importance of Accountability in Positions of Power

In the information age, transparency is the new normal, putting leaders in a high-visibility position. While that exposes them to additional scrutiny, it also creates a unique opportunity for them to develop and influence their organization’s culture. This culture-making capacity, in which soft skills and strategy are merged, is considered one of the most important, and powerful elements of leadership.

Whether an organization is achieving its goals or falling short, leadership must take an active approach to managing accountability. A culture that embraces accountability most effectively is not preoccupied with apportioning blame or awarding credit. Rather, a healthy culture fosters a sense of ownership over inputs and outcomes among its members. This culture can inform everything from how effectively an organization improves itself and develops, to how ideas and innovation are implemented.

In broad terms, accountability manifests in two primary forms, each of which has its own merits, limits, and uses.

Who’s In Charge Here? The Formal Approach

Hierarchical accountability is more concerned with individual performance, rank, and responsibility. As the name suggests, hierarchical accountability is based on chains of command and strict definitions of responsibility. When the 2012 attacks on the U.S. embassy in Libya left an American ambassador and a Foreign Service Officer dead, Secretary of State Clinton claimed responsibility for the tragedy on the basis of hierarchy:

“I take responsibility…I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts. The president and the vice president wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals. They’re the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision.”

Accountability at the top ensures that it is visible, and discourages a culture of blame-shifting that sends criticism and punishment exclusively down the chain of command. Authority leaders committed to demonstrating accountability show no one is above reproach, unburdened by consequences, or insulated from subordinates.

In terms of organizational culture, role-based accountability encourages everyone to take ownership of their specific positions, and the work they do as individuals. The principles of scientific management are founded on this concept. Henry Ford’s assembly line relied on each worker performing a specific task; if one link in the chain broke down, it could be precisely identified, addressed, and then production resumed. Efficiency in any organization depends in part on everyone recognizing their role, and assuming accountability for fulfilling it.

As far as leadership is concerned, managing and maintaining this system of organization is only one side of a two-way street. Ownership of a task can help create a culture of engagement, but the second primary form of accountability can play an equally important part in the process.

A Little More Conversation: The Informal Approach

Informal accountability doesn’t necessarily follow the hierarchical order within an organization. Examples of this can be as simple as soliciting feedback, and actively responding when it is received. A strict hierarchy may not account for the attitudes and impressions of subordinates; informally, though, leaders can make themselves accessible by answering to their juniors as well as their superiors.

Leaders gain engagement not by demanding accountability, but by embodying it. Ford Motors CEO Alan Mulally conveyed how the company’s servant leadership philosophy achieved this: by turning hierarchies around and making supervisors responsible for empowering workers, rather than having workers under constant scrutiny by their supervisors.

“Critical to doing that is reinforcing the idea that everyone is included. Everyone is part of the team and everyone’s contribution is respected, so everyone should participate. When people feel accountable and included, it is more fun. It is just more rewarding to do things in a supportive environment. Say, for example, an employee decides to stop production on a vehicle for some reason. In the past at Ford, someone would have jumped all over them: ‘What are you doing? How did this happen?’ It is actually much more productive to say, ‘What can we do to help you out?’”

Leadership may be formally responsible for maximizing efficiency, addressing shortcomings, and managing personnel. That does not mean that the best ideas always come from the top. A culture of engagement gives everyone the opportunity to influence leadership, and see their contributions taken seriously. Specific roles in the chain of command may vary, but they are united by a common goal.

Accountable Leaders Keep Everyone On Track

Aside from the obvious power of leading by example, accountable leadership is empowering to everyone. The idea that anyone, at any level, can take a scrutinizing look at the person or people in charge, appraise performance, and actually get feedback–including changes in that leadership, as well as performance, mission, and strategy–is the basis for democracy, not to mention effective businesses and other organizations.

Modern leaders will find that both broad systems of accountability may have a role to play in their missions. Where accountability leads to empowerment, there is a community engaged in both strategy and a collaborative sense of mission. Where accountability is neglected, good ideas, good people, and important projects can become casualties. Public or private, big or small, organizations are ultimately made of people, and those people need accountability to inspire, correct, and coordinate them.

The people who take on leadership roles set the tone and provide the example of how accountability will be integrated and managed. The great power of leaders is in their heightened visibility: how they execute their offices informs the culture of their organizations.


Leadership, Accountability and Public Value: Resolving a Problem in “New Governance”?, International Journal of Public Administration

Trust and control in Anglo-American systems of corporate governance: The individualizing and socializing effects of processes of accountability, Human Relations

Public Opinion, the War in Iraq, and Presidential Accountability, The Journal of Conflict Resolution

Clinton: I'm responsible for diplomats' security, CNN

Leading in the 21st century: An interview with Ford’s Alan Mulally, McKinsey & Company

Government-community relationships: Extending the relational theory of public relations, Public Relations Review

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