It is the true measure of a leader’s height
There is one trait that is in demand, nearly everywhere and in every arena. Though it doesn’t have much flash or sizzle, it is the bedrock of all great leadership.
It is the one ball, that if dropped, doesn’t bounce. It breaks.
It is the glue of every relationship, organization, and endeavor.
It needs constant tending, and requires constant vigilance.
And it is an idea that no one likes to embrace, but we all admire.
It is accountability.
No trait is more important, nor admirable.
Accountability is the measure of a leader’s height.
The One Topic That He Never Allowed on TV
There was one social issue that actor and producer Michael Landon refused to cover on his 1980s TV show Highway to Heaven.
Landon felt accountable to his audience about the stories that he told. He saw compelling evidence that showed an increase in this one issue when it was mentioned on TV. Even though the show dealt with every other relevant social issue, he refused to even mention this social problem on the show.
What issue could be so important that a TV star and producer would never even mention it on his fictional TV show?
I am hesitant to even mention it myself. But I will, for the sake of revealing Landon’s accountability for his work.
If You Sell It, Back It
“Every person’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of that person.”
— Samuel Butler
I recalled watching Highway to Heaven with my grandmother many years ago. It was the show she would never miss. The show aired in the 1980s and dealt with an angel and an ex-cop who traveled across the country to help people.
One of the writers of the show once told the story about the topic that Landon never wanted to address.
The writer had successfully pitched many different ideas to Landon, but the writer told a story about the one idea that Landon never allowed on his show. My attention peaked as the writer started to describe working for the famous Michael Landon.
Here’s what Landon never allowed on his show.
Landon once read that when a TV character mentioned taking one’s own life, then someone, somewhere actually took his or her own life. Landon decided that he would never contribute to that statistic.
The writer described Michael Landon’s reasoning: Landon felt accountable to his audience for what he created.
Landon respected his audience. He cared deeply about them. He could not create something that would hurt someone else. If he created a story for them, he wanted to make sure that the story improved their lives in some way.
Landon was not perfect. His TV show was not perfect, either. But he would not compromise his accountability to his audience.
Accountability doesn’t just touch people who create, though. It can affect us all, especially in professional settings.
Entrepreneurial coach Dan Sullivan has four rules to be “referable”.
- Show up on time. If you are more than 30 seconds late you lose half of your referability.
- Do what you say. Get back with someone if you need to change a promise.
- Finish what you start. We love people who do this, and we trust them.
- Say “please” and “thank you”. Be gracious and grateful.
When I heard Dan Sullivan explain these four rules, one idea stood out to me: each rule requires accountability to the people around us.
Consider each rule through the lens of accountability.
Showing up on time requires that we first set a time to meet with another person. In other words, we made an agreement with someone. Being late breaks that agreement. Honoring that agreement means being accountable.
Doing what you say means that we told someone what we are going to do. It brings accountability to our speech. We can no longer use words without backing them up.
Finish what you start means that when we begin, we are accountable for the final outcome. Starting creates the obligation to finish.
Even saying “please” and “thank you” is linked to accountability. The words imply that we are accountable for two things. Saying “please” means that we have a duty to act politely. We recognize the value in the person we are asking. Saying “thank you” implies gratitude — not entitlement.
Dan Sullivan’s rules for becoming “referable” require the skill of accountability. But Dan’s rules also provide a framework to learn accountability: (1) show up on time, (2) do what you say, (3) finish what you start, and (4) say “please” and “thank you”. The best professionals — in any industry — will do those things. And if the best do them, why aren’t we doing them?
Accountability is the basis for the best professional qualities.
Accountability Leads to Freedom
Accountable people make execution possible.
There are two types of people on any team. The first type is accountable for working a certain amount of time. Once that amount of time is reached, then the person’s responsibility ends.
The second type of person is accountable for a certain outcome. No amount of time is enough until the result is achieved.
The person in charge must always be the second type of person — who is accountable for an outcome. No organization can survive long without someone who is accountable for an outcome leading the way.
However, being accountable for an outcome rather than merely an amount of time is scary. It means that effort without results is not rewarded. But it can also be liberating. We are not committed to a certain amount of time. We can innovate. We can focus. We can get the job done and move on to something else. If we are good, then we have freedom.
Accountability leads to freedom.
One of my favorite stories involves a young couple who just purchased a home. In an attempt to attract birds to their backyard, they installed a birdhouse right outside their back window. The couple went to sleep looking forward to seeing birds enjoying food provided by their handiwork the next morning.
Excitedly, the couple woke up in the morning to enjoy the birds.
But there were no birds.
The birdhouse was empty. The food was gone.
The couple looked outside and saw squirrels finishing the last remnants of any bird food in the birdhouse.
The couple responded by hanging the birdhouse from a tree.
The next morning the birdhouse was empty — all of the bird food was gone. The squirrels found a way.
The couple elevated the birdhouse. The squirrels still broke in.
Finally, the couple put spikes around the entire birdhouse — even along the supporting beam that held it up.
The next morning, the couple hurriedly looked at the birdhouse.
It was full! The squirrels were thwarted.
Days, and then weeks went by. The couple enjoyed the birds that eventually came to feed.
Then, one day the couple woke up, and the birdhouse had again been ransacked. The squirrels — thwarted for a time — had found a way.
What does this story even mean?
The couple was motivated by a desire to enjoy their backyard view and experience.
The squirrels were motivated by the will to live.
When the couple had to do make a change, they did it and then moved on to different parts of their lives.
When the squirrels faced the new roadblock, the only thing that they could do is think about how to solve the new problem. They only thought of breaking into the birdhouse. They only thought of survival.
- The couple were accountable for their own comfort.
- The squirrels were accountable for their lives.
No matter what the couple tried, they could never match the motivation of the squirrels.
- Are you more like the couple, who just want the enjoyment of the birds? Do you devote a discrete time to making something work, and then forget about it.
- Or are you more like the squirrels, who absolutely have to eat to survive? This type of people must solve a a problem, such that all they think about is solving the problem — all day, all night, forever, until it is solved.
The squirrels won because they were accountable for an outcome — survival. They would not stop, ever.
How to Guarantee a Life of Misery
While writing this article, I came across a section of a speech by Charlie Munger, courtesy of James Clear. Munger’s speech cements the importance of being reliable, as he covered “how to guarantee a life of misery”:
“[If you want to guarantee a life of misery], be unreliable. Do not faithfully do what you have engaged to do. If you will only master this one habit you will more than counterbalance the combined effect of all your virtues, howsoever great. If you like being distrusted and excluded from the best human contribution and company, this prescription is for you. Master this one habit and you can always play the role of the hare in the fable, except that instead of being outrun by one fine turtle you will be outrun by hordes and hordes of mediocre turtles and even by some mediocre turtles on crutches.
“I must warn you that if you [do the opposite] it may be hard to end up miserable, even if you start disadvantaged. I had a roommate in college who was and is severely dyslexic. But he is perhaps the most reliable man I have ever known. He has had a wonderful life so far, outstanding wife and children, chief executive of a multibillion dollar corporation. …you simply can’t count on your other handicaps to hold you back if you persist in being reliable.”
Munger’s version of misery is being completely unreliable, or rather, having no accountability to anyone.
Lack of accountability is a prescription for misery.
Be the Best You, Not the One Who Can Get By
“The price of greatness is responsibility.”
— Winston Churchill
Most people believe that leadership has more benefits than negatives. Most who aspire to leadership believe that those at the top reap rewards that represent years of struggle and hard work.
But the price of greatness is accountability. And even those at the top are accountable.
In 1998, the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management, or LTCM, was the darling of the investment world.
Initial yearly rates of return were 21%, 41%, and 43%.
Yet in 1998, the leaders of LTCM knew that the incredible results were about to end.
In 1998 LTCM lost $4.6 billion in less than four months. LTCM had to be bailed out by numerous banks and the Federal Reserve. In early 2000, the fund dissolved in disgrace.
As I read about the meteoric rise and sudden demise of LTCM in the book, When Genius Failed, my heart broke — for one specific reason.
During the discussions near the end, the door to the boardroom was closed to the staff — and it never opened. The executives never revealed to the employees that the fund was dying. Many of the employees had invested their own nest eggs into the fund. Each of their financial futures were directly tied to the fund’s performance. Yet, the employees were kept in the dark. The employees knew nothing of the fund’s imminent demise.
Accountability means more than just hitting an objective and reaping the rewards. It means that you take responsibility for an entire situation — both the good and the bad. It means that when the company is falling apart, the leaders open the doors to the boardroom and let others know about what is happening.
Certainly, no individual or organization can succeed without accountability. But accountability extracts a price as well.
We are accountable for what we create — good and bad.
Michael Landon knew this, and lived it. So should we.
And no individual or organization can thrive without accountability for certain outcomes.
There is no greater measure of a leader’s height than accountability.
We love people who take responsibility. God gave us burdens, but also shoulders.
In short, the price of greatness of accountability.