The year 2009 may be remembered as the year of the "finger point." Ken Lewis, CEO of Bank of America (BAC), under serious scrutiny for his lack of communication to shareholders during the prelude to the acquisition of Merrill Lynch, blames former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the Fed for putting him under pressure. (Dude, you are the CEO. Isn't it your JOB to handle that kind of pressure on behalf of stakeholders?)Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin says it was the lies of online bloggers and emails from the public that were to blame for her attorney general appointee Wayne Anthony Ross becoming the first appointed head of a state agency in Alaska to be rejected by the legislature, according to the Juneau Empire. (If it weren't for those pesky VOTERS, governing wouldn't be such a frustrating job!). Then, of course, there's John Thain of Merrill Lynch, who blamed Stanley O'Neal (his predecessor) for the company mess he inherited but then Thain himself later had to have explain why he would need a $1,405 garbage pail in the multi-million dollar renovation of his office. (John, it's bad form for the maker of a garbage can to profit more from your decisions than your entire shareholder body!) Finally, just last week, AT&T ( T) CEO Randall Stephenson put the blame on economic pressures (and pension expenses) for a drop in first quarter profit despite the fact that the greatest boost to sales was the Apple ( AAPL) iPhone, which is subsidized to the tune of hundreds of dollars per phone sold. (You might want to look at how subsidies worked out for General Motors ( GM), Ford ( F), Chrysler and the other automakers!)
Leadership accountability is not the act of pointing to the reason why a problem exists --it is the act of taking ownership for the problem. To behave otherwise in a leadership role is to be a victim, which is the antithesis of being a leader. Victims are at the mercy of outside forces. Not only can victims not control their environment, they are without influence in it. Victims talk a lot about "they" and how "they" are causing the problem. We have no confidence in victims because their actions are at the whim of whatever forces are impacting them. Victims are not leaders. It is difficult at times for leaders to avoid victimhood because it is true that there are always things that are out of our control. In your own leadership position, whether corporate, non-profit, social or personal, there will be times when it seems that you are not making excuses, you are giving reasons. And maybe you are. But it is one thing to give reasons why an event occurred and another thing entirely to focus on why you are not responsible for the outcome. Victimhood, by definition, is defensive. How do you know if you are portraying yourself as a victim rather than a leader? 1. Victims talk about responsibility in terms of "they" and "them" and rarely in terms of "I" and "we." If you find yourself trying to convince your followers or other constituents that there is a "they" out there that is to blame for outcomes for which you are responsible, you are being a victim. Leaders tend to talk about "I" and "we" and avoid focusing the blame on uncontrollable forces.
2. Victims are reactive. If you are talking about what you are going to do, rather than what you have started doing, you are also positioning yourself as a leader without control of the situation. Those that are accountable begin to act as soon as they see there is a problem. Victims can't take action because that would imply they have some ability to influence the situation. Leaders take ownership of the situation which means they are entirely free to act 3. Victims wallow in pity. In one of my seminars a year or so ago I created "Victim" cards for people in the session who were avoiding accountability. The back of the card said, "The holder of this card is powerless, abused, misunderstood and generally worthy of our pity. Please feel sorry for them." This was a very popular card (because everybody KNEW somebody who could use it.) If you are spending a lot of time delivering the message to others that you are STILL sorry for some poor decision or action you took, you are giving away any influence you may have. Accountable leaders take responsibility and then they move on. The trick to taking accountability is to start taking accountability. I know that may not be the most profound thing you read today, but it is simple and it is true. I, for one, am more likely to vote for, work for and invest in companies with leaders that don't make me worry about the issues that they should be worrying about and on which they should be taking action. Enough whining already, it's time to get things done.