Leadership can be bought. And the only currency accepted is accountability.
Everywhere you go, everything you do, every breath you take, you are exchanging currency for a perceived benefit. When you go to work, you are spending your time. When you go on vacation, you are spending your dollars. When you run a marathon, you are spending your energy. When you lie, you are spending your trust. When you write, you are spending your ideas. For everything you want in life, there is a cost. For everything you do in life, there is a barrier to entry. Leadership is no exception.
For leadership, you must pay with accountability. Accountability is a double-edged sword. It allows you to take credit when things go well, but when things go wrong, it’s your fault. Even when your subordinates make a mistake, it is your fault. Even when you don’t think something is your fault, it’s your fault. You can’t pick and choose where to spend your accountability. Every aspect of leadership is governed by it. Before you become a leader, you must build a reservoir of accountability by taking on responsibilities, showing you can handle more than you are expected, and taking unequivocal ownership of your work. When you have accumulated a surplus of accountability, others will see that that you are ready to spend it, and recognize you as a leader. When you become a leader, you begin to spend that accountability by putting your name on things, taking the blame when things go wrong, and putting your own skin on the line by passing it down to your team.
Unlike most currencies, accountability can be printed without repercussions. It can be created out of thin air without devaluation. The unrecognized leader is able to accumulate accountability because no one is expecting them to be fully accountable for anything beyond their specific job. But leaders are accountable for everything, and must dip into their stockpile often, in exchange for trust, respect, or compliance. The great thing about accountability that is often overlooked is that when you spend it, you can simply generate more. Want more responsibility? Be accountable. Want more opportunities? Be accountable. Want to convince people to listen to you? Be accountable. This concept sounds easy, except, the more you create accountability, the more you must spend it, and the more you spend it, the more you must create it. That is precisely why there are so few quality leaders. Accountability is exhausting. It’s much easier to let other people take the risks.
Problems arise when leaders become stingy with accountability. They pick and choose where they want to spend it. They want the benefits without the costs. They hold certain people accountable and let others slide. And because the revolving door of accountability is so rapid, they get in the habit of making excuses to cover up for the fact that they simply cannot keep up with the accountability demands of leadership. They don’t realize that excuse-making is contagious, and that their subordinates are always watching. It’s the mimetic theory of leadership, and can result in the bankruptcy of organizational accountability.
To avoid such a downward spiral, cultivate a culture of accountability—and as you might have guessed, it all starts with you. Like decisiveness, accountability is something you can practice. You can create your own accountability structure in private, so that you won’t have to think twice about being accountable in public. You can use Jerry Seinfeld’s calendar strategy, you can write 100 short essays in 100 days, or you can form small accountability groups with friends to ensure you stick to your promises.
The essence of leadership is accountability. There is no leadership without it. Just like there is no house without dollars, no dollars without effort, no effort without time, and no time without sacrifice. For every benefit, there is a cost. And to lead, you must be ready and willing to spend accountability. Tell the truth, admit to your mistakes, listen to others, and take responsibility for everything. When you realize the only currency for leadership is accountability, you cannot afford to go bankrupt.
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