Who holds the top accountable? As a leader, whether of a unit or an organization, it’s easy to get trapped by the illusions of the office. Check the news for accounts of people who used their offices unethically. The leader’s role is fraught with many opportunities to misstep. Leader of cause organizations need to be especially vigilant as effectiveness is often measured obliquely and in the long-term, even as there’s pressure to show immediate results. The current elections and discussion about the economy are an example of people wanting short-term results for long-term systemic issues. Leaders, whether elected or appointed, are under pressure to show progress FAST.
As a leader, you want to deliver those results; you get to work. After all, YOU were hired, not someone else, because your skills, experience, and perspective matched the job. You have the needed relationships. You’ve got good instincts and likely, a track record of success. Your effort shows signs of success. That’s just the danger time—when the mission, the organization, your tenure/leadership, and you as an individual can get conflated.
It can be tricky to you hold yourself to the highest standards of organizational and mission effectiveness, especially if you think success is about you as an individual. You want a team you can trust to support your leadership but do you take disagreement for disloyalty? You want your expertise respected but does another approach signal an effort to undermine you? Do you want success for the organization and the mission, or accolades for you? You want to act ethically, but occasionally expediency has its merits, right?
These are not merely either/or dichotomies but moment by moment opportunities to fall out of integrity or be accountable to your highest standards. It’s easy to let the ego-feeding elements of the job—title, meetings with “important” people, press, and more—crowd out, even momentarily, the ethical standards and ultimate purpose for being a leader.
It’s not that you won’t lapse. Rather the challenge is to keep the lapses to a minimum and re-center quickly when they happen. Begin by articulating your values and your vision for long and short term success of the issue and the organization. Then identify principles and behaviors will shape your leadership because they exemplify the values and vision. Not platitudes but real behaviors that are recognizable, attainable and represent the vision in action. Examples include: share credit for successes; collaborate; encourage/develop new leaders.
Next, gather a group of people to keep you connected to your larger purposes. It’s essential that you trust them to and let them hold you accountable. They need to know how you’re likely to squirm out of responsibility—bully, whine, explain, make them wrong, tell jokes, change the subject, or something else—and hold you to your standard. Check in with them regularly, not just when things are very good or very bad. That way, they’ll recognize your habits, even when you don’t.
Ultimate accountability for leaders comes after the fact. Daily accountability requires a team of supporters and a willingness to hold to principles now.