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Leadership and Accountability

August 24, 2011

Leadership and Accountability

Guest Post by Edith Luc

For many, being a leader means to be popular, to be admired by others and even to become a model for success stories. However, the true implications of a leader involve being completely responsible for successes and failures and acknowledging and assuming the responsibility for the consequences of actions, decisions, policies and commitments. Leadership and accountability are two sides of the same coin.

The duty of being accountable is linked to the leader and his/her duty to assume the responsibility and to be answerable for both positive and negative consequences and outcomes. The leader does not delegate the responsibility to others, to the past, to ignorance (by claiming to have been misinformed) or to put the blame on any other reason.

The CEO or figurehead of authority represents and is responsible for the entire company: its financial performance, the quality of the resources, products and services, the partnerships, employee health and security and the social and ethical responsibilities to name a few. He/she needs to be surrounded with colleagues of high quality and integrity and that can assume their share of the responsibilities. The technicians, professionals, managers, the clientele representatives who are responsible for providing the best possible service to clients (efficient and respectful answers and within a reasonable delay) or any other individual within an organization is expected to be accountable within their scope of the role and responsibility.

These past weeks in the news, I noticed two cases that demonstrate different levels of accountability by figureheads of authority. The first one is inspired by the current state of the roads and bridges in Quebec and is an example of a lack of accountability by political leaders. The second case involves the decision made by a President towards his clients following an incident caused by a crisis in management. This last case demonstrates an impeccably assumed accountability on the part of the figurehead of authority.

The case of the road incidents in Montreal: The opposite of accountability?!

A few weeks ago, a block of cement from a bridge collapsed on one of Montreal’s main highways that passed through the city center. Fortunately no one was injured. This incident is one of the many manifestations of the city’s crumbling infrastructures and it sparked many comments from the political leaders that were directly and indirectly involved in the crisis. I have put forward a few of these comments for you to decide whether or not these are demonstrations of accountability by the figureheads of authority involved in the problem.

  • The Mayor of Montreal, Mr. Tremblay repeatedly assured his citizens that the City would insure their security and that he was personally collaborating with the Ministry of Transportation to resolve problems. He added that he had been working very hard for the past ten years to solve these problems.  (The duty of accountability is to assume the results of a situation and not to remind others of the efforts made.)
  • “We are regularly inspecting infrastructures.” (The Ministry of Transportation of Quebec)
  • According to Sam Hamad, the Minister of Transport, the Ministry was encouraged to take concrete actions to solve the problem following the recommendations by the construction firm SNC Lavallin.  (Since 2008, the Ministry of Transportation of Quebec was not able to find any contracts for the solidification of the Ville-Marie Tunnel).
  • The Ministry of Transportation blames a private contractor to have weakened the supporting structure that reduced the glare for drivers entering the tunnel.
  • “We begin to take action the instant there is a feeling that public security is being threatened. Money is not an issue when it comes to the security of the people.”
  • The Bloc Québécois denounce the inactivity of the Charest government in the administration of Montreal’s roads.

In the case of the Montreal road incidents, the political leaders are examples of figureheads of authority ignoring their duty of accountability. They promise that measures will be or are being taken to solve the problem; they put the blame on others, on the consequences, on the lack of resources or the mistakes of predecessors instead of admitting their own mistakes. Being accountable is to feel and assume the responsibility for the consequences, the efforts made or the lack of efforts made. The duty of accountability is to know when to admit and to acknowledge a failure.

Those who are responsible for a problem are automatically accountable even if they did not cause it!

The case of the online company Airbnb.

This case demonstrates an assumed accountability by the President of Airbnb, an online company connecting people that are searching for a short, medium or long term accommodation with owners who are looking to rent out their home.

In the month of June 2011, the home of a host was vandalized by a guest that had rented the accommodation through the services of Airbnb. The weeks following the incident, the co-founder and President, Brian Chesky wrote a letter to his clients apologizing for the poor management of the situation and admitting that the company did not assume its responsibilities during the crisis. However, he quickly made sure that the problem would not reproduce itself by applying the appropriate actions.

Here is a part of the email that was sent to all Airbnb service users. The displays of accountability are emphasized by the bold text:

 Hi,

Last month, the home of a San Francisco host named EJ was tragically vandalized by a guest. The damage was so bad that her life was turned upside down. When we learned of this our hearts sank. We felt paralyzed, and over the last four weeks, we have really screwed things up. Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post trying to explain the situation, but it didn’t reflect my true feelings. So here we go.

There have been a lot of questions swirling around, and I would like to apologize and set the record straight in my own words. In the last few days we have had a crash course in crisis management. I hope this can be a valuable lesson to other businesses about what not to do in a time of crisis, and why you should always uphold your values and trust your instincts.

With regards to EJ, we let her down, and for that we are very sorry. We should have responded faster, communicated more sensitively, and taken more decisive actions to make sure she felt safe and secure. But we weren’t prepared for the crisis and we dropped the ball. Now we’re dealing with the consequences. In working with the San Francisco Police Department, we are happy to say a suspect is now in custody. Even so, we realize that we have disappointed the community. To EJ, and all the other hosts who have had bad experiences, we know you deserve better from us.

We want to make it right. On August 15th, we will be implementing a $50,000 Airbnb Guarantee, protecting the property of hosts from damage by Airbnb guests who book reservations through our website.

Other measures are also being implemented, these include: a 24-hour customer hotline, twice as many employees in the customer support team, the establishment of a new department dedicated to trust and safety and the ability to directly contact the CEO at brian.chesky@airbnb.com.

 Thank you for being part of Airbnb.

 Sincerely,

Brian Chesky
CEO, Co-founder
Airbnb
 

In the message, M. Chesky completely recognizes his responsibility in the incident even though he was not the direct cause of it. He apologizes to the victim and to all the company’s users, whether or not they have been victims of vandalism. He also openly acknowledges and identifies the flaws in his organization and presents measures that are and that will be implemented to improve his company for the benefit of every individual. Mr. Chesky recognizes his accountability towards his clients, employees and the San Francisco community.

The political leader or CEO’s accountability is highlighted by the following behaviors:

  1. By recognizing the mistake and authentically apologizing for it.
  2. By recognizing the consequences and those affected in the process.
  3. By concentrating efforts on actions to be taken rather than on finding excuses, apologizing or lingering on the initial emotions of deception or on the individuals affected by the consequences.
  4. By presenting the actions that will be taken to fix the situation and to prevent it from being reproduced.
  5. By speaking of the problem in the first person and not by hiding behind the “we” of the organization or by putting the blame on others.

The ability for a leader to authentically acknowledge and assume their accountability in a situation inspires confidence and encourages the search for solutions. The opposite of accountability is when the individual responsible discharges their responsibility on others and blames the consequence on the circumstances. This wears down the confidence in the leader and can create a lack of mobilization for the solving of the problem. The duty of accountability is valid for successes as well. Sharing successes with colleagues and collaborators can develop a sense of collective efficiency within the organization.

Conclusion.

The duty of accountability can be a synonym for leadership. The two cases above demonstrate that accountability is an essential quality of those who put their leadership into practice. The leader needs to recognize his/her accountability in the practice of leadership and his/her responsibility for the consequences of the decisions made, the actions implemented and the commitments taken within their team or organization.

Edith Luc

 A Ph.D. Graduate of the University of Montreal, Edith Luc specializes in leadership and management development and intercultural management. Her practice targets the development of competencies through the capitalization of leadership and diversity. You can read more of her works on her blog: http:// blogue.edithluc.com 

© 2011 Edith Luc, All Rights Reserved

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