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Are You Really Willing To Hold People Accountable?



Providing clear responsibilities for individuals, and then holding them accountable, are critically important tools for a successful leader. Accountability is often not well understood, but here is a clear statement from Peter Drucker from his 1967 book The Effective Executive that is worth taking revisiting:

It is the duty of the executive to remove anyone – and especially any manager – who consistently fails to perform with high distinction. To let such a person stay on corrupts the others. It is grossly unfair to the whole organization, and particularly to subordinates. Above all, it is senseless cruelty to the person themselves. He or she knows that they are inadequate whether they admit it or not.

Are You Really Willing To Hold People Accountable?

To provide an example of what he was talking about, Drucker discussed General George C. Marshall, who was chief of staff of the U.S. Army during World War II. In building up the U. S. Army from a weak force of just 190,000 men, to the almost 8 million at the end of the war, Marshall had to work fast.

Can or Can’t Do?

One story that showcases his clarity in assigning responsibilities involves the urgent need to update the army’s training manuals. When a particular Brigadier General was asked to take on the task, he told Marshall it would take 18 or more months, rather than the 3 or 4 months Marshall was asking for. Marshall asked him twice to reconsider his estimate. “It can’t be done,” he repeated. Marshall replied “I’m sorry then, you are relieved of your duties.” The manuals were updated in 3 months by one of Marshall’s hand-picked rising stars, of which there were many, such as Dwight Eisenhower.

There have been many books and articles on leadership in the military, and several have pointed out how the U. S. Army has changed dramatically from those days of World War II and from its prior strict adherence to accountability. Specifically, it is often noted that in studying the military over the decades since World War II, it teaches you how a culture of high standards and accountability can deteriorate.

No risk, no responsibility

A vivid example that is often discussed comes from the Vietnam war where most military experts note that the lack of clear objectives, responsibilities and accountability led to none of the levels of command being willing to take any risk. When all levels are acting that way, nothing of significance occurs. That in a nutshell describes the U. S. result in Vietnam. The experts point out that there was never any leader, all the way up the chain of command, that took responsibility for the military effort. Nobody took charge; clearly stating the objective, the game plan for achieving it, and designating responsibilities. Everyone in the chain of command, all the down to the soldier on the ground, were really not clear on what was going on.

Based on the many U. S. military examples such as this one, a key point that often gets made is that when responsibilities are vague and accountability is non-existent, the entire structure for making any kind of progress is undercut. In such environments an individual who might have been eager to exploit opportunity now tends to just float along with the crowd, not taking any initiative.

In today’s world, with exaggerated emphasis on teams, and the often seen tendency to make excuses and just muddle through, the hard core reminder from Drucker is worth taking to heart.

Images: “Highway Signpost with Accountability wordingShutterstock.com

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The Author:

Bob is an author, public speaker and retired executive vice president and chief operating officer (COO) of Microsoft Corporation. Before joining Microsoft, he spent twenty six years at Procter & Gamble, the last five of those years as senior vice president of advertising and information services. Since retirement, Bob has divided his time between working as a consultant for his own Herbold Group LLC and as writer and public speaker focusing on leadership. Bob has written three books. His latest, "What's Holding You Back? 10 Bold Steps That Define Gutsy Leaders" was released February 2011 by Wiley/Jossey-Bass. http://www.bobherbold.com

Add Your Comment

  • http://www.tweakyourbiz.com/ Sian Phillips

    I always enjoy reading your posts Bob and this is no exception. Your example of the Second World War is really interesting to hear about too. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with the TYB readers as always

  • http://cashwithatrueconscience.com/rbblog Ryan Biddulph

    Bob, I’m HUGE on making my team own their stuff, as I do ;) Thanks!