Creating a Culture of Leadership Accountability


Ineffective leaders can hide in plain sight in many organizations, even those often associated with great leadership. Often, the only thing that will reveal the leader’s challenges or flaws is the courage of one or more team members to “complain” about the leader’s behaviors.

It’s almost always a last resort, and for good reason. Taking the risk to provide unsolicited constructive or negative feedback about a leader can be a career-limiting move – whether the feedback is provided directly to the leader, or by level skipping to another leader.

When team members protect themselves by withholding feedback, the consequences to the organization are just as limiting. Leadership behaviors drive engagement, retention, performance, and innovation —for better or for worse. Good leadership is good business.

So how can we drive a culture of accountable leadership into our organizations, and how can we create systems that can detect ineffective leadership before the damage has been done? A recent research study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), titled Creating a High-Performance Culture, suggests that encouraging self-awareness and transparency are the keys to success.

Leadership Accountability at the Individual Level: Transparent Conversations

Earnestly and genuinely asking for feedback on a consistent basis is one of the simplest ways we as leaders can model accountability. The act of making ourselves vulnerable as leaders is one of the most powerful things we can do to transform our relationships with our teams. A famous study on leadership development programs led by Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan in 2004 found that individual leaders who gain self-awareness through a 360-degree assessment process, and then followed up with their colleagues regarding their own leadership development challenges and priorities, were seen to be far more effective as leaders by both their direct reports and peers. Perhaps even more importantly, the Goldsmith Morgan study linked the degree to which leaders openly discussed their development challenges/priorities with the degree to which their colleagues perceived them as effective leaders. The more transparent they were about their own development as leaders, the more effective they were seen to be.

The first thing we can do to improve leadership effectiveness is to establish a feedback process. Proactively asking for feedback communicates that this is a personal priority, and that we are committed to open and honest communication. When done right, it signals confidence and maturity as a leader. Scheduling in advance gives both participants time to prepare thoughtfully for the conversation.

How we then respond to feedback is of the utmost importance. We must stay focused on understanding the feedback and resist the temptation to address it in the meeting. Stay in the question long enough to understand what behaviors are getting in our way, and what impact those behaviors are having on the person providing the feedback. The person providing the feedback should walk away from the meeting feeling appreciated for taking the time to prepare for, and have, the conversation. They should feel validated.

Leadership Accountability at the Enterprise Level: Transparent Systems

If we want leadership accountability to become part of the fabric of the organizational culture, we must put systems in place to facilitate honest feedback, detect negative leadership behaviors early, and support individual leader development and/or consequences accordingly.

The enterprise performance management system is an obvious place to start, but merely having a system won’t be a cureall. Top organizations know that having a consistent, effectively utilized, and reinforced system is key. Too often the performance management process is complex, confusing, and inconsistently applied in organizations, and the traditional annual performance review is dreaded by leaders and subordinates alike, as a result.

The i4cp study found that many high-performing organizations take great strides to not only share information about performance appraisal criteria, but also to make sure that criteria are understood by all employees.

Using External Coaches to Enhance Leadership Accountability

Coaches are playing an increasingly important role in an organization’s leadership development and performance management efforts, and for good reason. The i4cp study reveals a strong link between an organization’s market performance and performance management systems that have coaching embedded in them. In short, if an organization wants to impact the bottom line, adding a coaching component is a good step.

External coaches focus on internalizing feedback, creating a substantive development plan, and preparing for follow up and accountability conversations with colleagues. The engagement of external coaches in this context adds a degree of safety, rigor, and accountability to the development planning process that is hard to replicate internally. Individual leaders are better able to examine and internalize feedback, to change their own behaviors, and address the root causes of those behaviors with a trusted 3rd party that they don’t work with every day and that isn’t embedded in a web of internal connections.

What Can You Do Today?

Whether you are a human capital leader in a large organization with sophisticated talent management systems, or a small organization with little to no HR infrastructure, there are several questions you should ask in order to develop a culture of leadership accountability.

  • Are expectations regarding leadership behaviors clearly understood by everyone in the organization, regardless of level?
  • Is coaching a part of your performance management process?
  • Do your performance management processes lead to greater self-awareness and transparency about leadership development at the individual leader level?
  • Are your leaders expected to follow up with their teams about their development priorities?
  • Are the right conversations taking place?

The answers to these questions should reveal some opportunities for improvement and hopefully, some early wins.


Kevin Osborne‘s focus is on facilitating Career Partners International – Seattle/Waldron’s growth across practice areas and consulting on select projects. Kevin is passionate about facilitating the process of leadership and organization development while fostering client relationships.

As CEO of i4cp, Kevin Oakes provides strategic direction and vision, and is responsible for the overall operations of the organization. Kevin has been a pioneer in the human capital field for the last 15 years, and is a frequent author and international keynote speaker on topics such as talent management, leadership, innovation, metrics and strategic learning in organizations.

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