Written by Stacey Martin, lead star contributor

Why do we blame traffic when we show up late?

Why do we point the finger at external factors whenever the spotlight shines on our failures?

Why are we so quick to excuse our actions rather than admit our mistakes?

It’s human nature to protect and deflect in the name of self-preservation. When we feel like our jobs, reputations, character, or clout are on the line, most people will instinctively look for a way to distance themselves from taking responsibility.

It’s hard to fess up when we mess up.

Yet, leadership requires it. Because the moment you are placed in a position to lead others, you become accountable to yourself, your team, and the people you seek to serve. And how you handle that responsibility will determine your effectiveness as a leader.

Accountability is a heavy word.

Accountability is one of those words you can “feel.” As light as a lead blanket, it envelops you in a shroud of responsibility. The mere mention of the word might even cause an involuntary wince. It tastes like a slice of humble pie that’s hard to choke down over that lump in your throat. It sounds like admitting defeat and accepting you still have things to learn.

But while accountability might not be the most popular guest at the leadership party, it is arguably the most important one. Because, without it, you lose credibility and likeability–and nobody wants to follow someone who can’t even lead themselves.

What is accountable leadership?

To put it plainly, an accountable leader is the one ultimately responsible for the actions, failures, and successes of the team they lead. It’s an idea best summed up by President Harry S. Truman, who famously placed a sign on his desk that read, “The buck stops here.”

When things go awry, an accountable leader will step up and take the blame instead of pointing fingers at others. But it doesn’t end here. Because on the other side of accountability is an action spearheaded by a leader who accepts responsibility for figuring out the way forward.

Why is accountability in leadership important?

  • Accountability builds trust. Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship. If the leader is willing to be open and transparent about their own mistakes and missteps, it encourages a culture of mutual trust and respect. And in this environment, people are more likely to view failures as opportunities for learning, growth, and progress.
  • Accountability encourages teamwork. When a system of accountability is in place, everyone on the team does their part and works together to get the job done. A team led to own their actions and resulting outcomes can more easily put aside egos and personal preservation to improve performance and achieve goals.
  • Accountability promotes a culture of integrity. If you want to be a leader of others, you must be a leader of self first–and a leader always does the right thing, even when no one else is watching. But here’s the thing: if you’re a leader, someone is always watching. And, if you consistently demonstrate honesty and openness and make decisions based on your values, your team will notice and follow suit.

For tips on how to build this crucial leadership skill, check out this Lead Star article that offers five ways to foster a culture of accountability.

What does an accountable leader look like?

Let’s revisit the idea that accountability is a concept you experience with your senses. If that’s true, we can describe an accountable leader by how they look and sound and the feeling they give off to others. An accountable leader looks humble and courageous, willing to step up when the stakes are high and offer a path toward resolution. An accountable leader sounds like someone who says, “I’ll take responsibility for that error” and “I’ll own that mistake.” An accountable leader feels like someone you can trust and respect.

Why must accountability be paired with encouragement?

There is a danger in accountability if not paired with encouragement. As much as we try to separate the evaluation of work from the assessment of people, humans are emotionally tied to what they create and contribute. Given this reality, a leader that holds their team accountable must also provide healthy doses of constructive and positive feedback to build confidence and alleviate shame. Fear of repercussions for taking responsibility has no place in the workplace if you want to lead a team willing to grow and learn together.

Embrace extreme responsibility.

If you want to build a team that demonstrates honesty and ownership, then developing a culture of accountability is the way to get there. And it all starts with you. Embracing extreme responsibility will set you apart as a leader worthy of your calling.

For more ways to develop personal accountability, watch this video from SPARK author Courtney Lynch on how she’s worked to resist the urge to place blame.