Successful leadership demands responsibility

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jim Annexstad
  • 21st Space Wing Staff Judge Advocate
Gen. Curtis E. LeMay once said that if he had to come up with one word to define leadership, it would be "responsibility." We have seen many examples of leaders taking responsibility in the Air Force during our 65 year history. Some of the most recent examples have dealt with our senior leadership taking responsibility in the nuclear enterprise, acquisition process and most recently on preventing and erasing sexual assault from our Air Force.

The 21st Space Wing is filled with great leaders, and as leaders we have personal responsibility for the organization's performance in executing the mission. However, this means much more than accepting the consequences of your actions. It means taking ownership of your programs and processes and becoming personally invested in their success...or failure.

You often hear people admonish others to be "good stewards" of their organizations, but leadership demands more. Stewards maintain organizations, making improvements at the margins and ensuring that organizational resources aren't wasted or abused. Great leaders take on a sense of personal responsibility for the organization's success as a whole and take the steps necessary to see that it is a smoothly working entity, rather than a collection of processes and people. A leader that says "This is my squadron, and the way it is regarded by base populace and my own unit reflects on me" will be successful. In fact, the most effective leaders extend this self-image of being responsible for success or failure to higher levels: "This is my squadron, wing, command and Air Force, and its success or failure depends on me." He or she looks beyond the standard tasks assigned to his or her organization and searches for ways to help the Air Force accomplish its mission.

Successful leaders focus on the responsibility they have towards those they lead, and they give responsibility to someone who doesn't usually have it. Successful leaders don't take problems to the boss until they have done the research and developed a preliminary solution. They also don't accept problems from subordinates until they have researched and developed a preliminary solution. Finally, successful leaders discuss followership with their staff.

Equally important is accountability which is an extension of the concept of responsibility. No Airman with integrity tries to shift the blame to others; "the buck stops here" says it best. Accountability means accepting the consequences of your actions. Unfortunately, in the public mind, accountability seems to have taken on the sole meaning of the need to punish someone when something goes wrong. It has become something to fear, rather than embrace with courage.

The ancient Romans had a tradition. Whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the keystone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch. Its fundamental element is recognizing that you must stand up for your areas of responsibility and for the things you did or did not do. The question "Who is accountable for this process?" seeks to determine who is ultimately responsible for its performance, whether it is outstanding or poor. Yes, "blame" can be part of accountability, but thinking of it only in terms of blame stands in the way of a leader understanding and accepting his or her personal levels of accountability.

Leading by example gives a leader the credibility to demand adherence to high standards from his or her staff as well. For many people, maintaining organizational accountability can be more challenging than maintaining personal accountability. But if it is not maintained, morale and performance will suffer. Counseling, honest feedback, accurate performance reports, recognition (or the lack of it when performance is substandard), and, when appropriate, disciplinary action, all serve to infuse the members of an organization with a personal stake in its success. High standards alone are not sufficient. Most people will meet them when they can, but some will ignore them when other priorities make them difficult or inconvenient. If, on the other hand, high standards are coupled with accountability, people develop the habit of meeting those standards.

Leaders must create a mental connection between their responsibilities and their actions and consequences and forthrightly accept accountability for them. But accountability is not just retrospective. The primary value of accepting your accountability is its effect on your behavior. When you feel accountable for what happens as a result of what you do or do not do, then there is a natural tendency to try to avoid adverse results -- because they will reflect on you! Your effectiveness, credibility or standing may all be degraded. Thus, leaders find ways to adhere to high personal standards of deportment and performance that promote their ability to inspire confidence and dedication to their goals. The degree to which you hold yourself accountable to complying with those rules will set the standard for other member of the organization.