The Difference Between Accountable and Responsible Leadership

There is a big difference between being an accountable leader and being a responsible leader.

The following may sound a bit harsh or pedantic at first, but stay with it and you will be rewarded with important distinctions:

An accountable leader focuses on being able to account for his or her actions and results. In my doctoral studies years ago I researched “account-giving.” That is simply the narratives (i.e., stories) we make up to explain what is going on—we give accounts.

Thus an accountable leader has all of his or her ducks in line. He knows what he is being held accountable for and ensures that he can account for all the activities and outcomes. An accountable leader is likely a good manager, efficient with time, and proficient with tracking objectives, priorities, and schedules.

An accountable leader attends to accounting for what’s happening. A responsible leader attends to responding in order to produce a result that matters. One is backward looking, the other forward looking.

Here’s the Leadership Difference

An accountable leader focuses on accounting for why he or she can’t get where he/she is headed while a responsible leader is going somewhere and focuses on confronting and overcoming the obstacles. It’s a big difference.

Want an example?

I’ve heard many leaders in the past year—on the news and in my workshops—account for their inability to produce desired results by justifying that they had inherited a dire situation or a poor performing organization.

If you follow the lessons of The Responsibility Process, you realize there are six ways we can account for failure and let ourselves off the hook: we can operate from Denial, Lay Blame, Justify, Shame, Obligation, or Quit.

We also ask others to buy such accounting for poor results in hopes that they, too, will let us off the hook for poor results. And it is amazing how often they do!

A responsible leader is different in the way he or she views the world.

A responsible leader

– is on a quest, a quest that requires her to constantly expand her ability to respond to whatever happens around her.

– challenges himself to own his power and ability to create, choose, and attract everything that happens to him. He feels increasingly connected to and in harmony with — instead of apart from and fighting — the world and knows that he gets to choose what he responds to and what he doesn’t respond to.

– knows he or she has irresponsible thoughts and actions every day and works faithfully to catch them and transform them into responsible thoughts before acting.

– learns, corrects, and improves, usually in response to something not going as planned because he knows that things often don’t go as planned.

– does everything in her power to produce the intended outcome, then lets go of results because a responsible leader judges herself not by events but by her responses to events.

– forgives himself and others quickly for his humanness and for doing irresponsible things, but in the act of forgiveness, he also holds high standards for people’s power and ability to correct, to improve, to learn, to choose, to create, and to attract his world.

intends to operate from an inner sense of direction, vision, and truth every moment. A responsible leader knows what she wants or is searching to discover what she wants.

is increasingly aware of himself, of others, of perspectives, and points of view. A responsible leader never learns less. A responsible leader knows the only way he can fail is to stop trying and is always interested in understanding different ways of being and knowing.

– seeks freedom for herself and others. A responsible leader knows that the feeling of being trapped limits one’s ability to respond, which goes against the fundamental nature of responsibility — of increasing one’s power and ability to respond to whatever happens.

– generates choices for him/herself and encourages others to generate choices. A responsible leader knows that there are always more choices available than the one’s currently seen and inherently understands that choices are freeing and empowering. When one has real choices, one feels resourceful.

– is an increasingly powerful—as opposed to controlling—leader. Powerful in the sense of clarity, conviction, trust, and truth. Powerful in the sense that people want to follow rather than be held captive. Powerful in the sense that difficult or unpopular decisions can be made without regard to popularity polls.

– is willing to sit in the angst of uncertainty while searching for clarity and choices.

 teaches followers to take responsibility for their choices.

thinks and acts clearly when others are stuck or confused.

Which presents the more powerful leadership opportunity for you?

Would you prefer to be a more accountable or a more responsible leader? Here’s an observation worth noting: responsibility trumps accountability every time. So if you focus on responsibility, you won’t have to worry much about your accounting.

It’s something to think about.



Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.


Posted in Leadership, Responsibility, Teamwork on 01/20/2011 10:31 am
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