Has Accountability Died In Our Culture? Reviving It, Courageously
Has Accountability Died In Our Culture? Reviving It, Courageously
In less than five years, millennials will comprise 50% of the workforce. This next generation of leaders will shape the world of work for years to come, which will be critical for the future of any business.

But if we look around us today, we see signs that true accountability seems to be a dying trait. In both young and older professionals alike, accountability is clearly waning. According to award-winning author and leadership consultant Lee Ellis, it’s time to reverse this trend of lack of accountability, or the consequences will be dire, for leadership, for business, for our global relationships and for the world.

Ellis is the author of the new book Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability. He is also President and founder of Leadership Freedom LLC, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, and FreedomStar Media, a publishing company that provides leadership resources and training. Lee was an Air Force  fighter pilot, shot down and captured in Vietnam, serving more than five years as a POW where he learned leadership in the crucible as his team battled to return with honor from the communist POW camps.

With more than 15 years of experience providing resources and training for leadership, Ellis’ approach has been implemented by Fortune 500 clients, senior executives, and C-Level leaders in a variety of industries.

Lee shares his insights on building a culture of courageous accountability:

Kathy Caprino: Lee, tell us what you have found about why a lack of accountability leads to dishonorable behavior that erodes trust, promotes cynicism, and can destroy a business?

Lee Ellis: There are many examples that make the point. Enron and Arthur Anderson disintegrated for this very reason. And consider the costs (estimated in the billions) to VW for its software cheating. They did not have the courage to deal with their failures or lack of performance, so they covered up.

Courageous accountability is crucial to human performance, because we need both a carrot and a stick to keep us on track. Accountability helps us perform because we generally want to keep our commitments and it reminds us of them. It also helps us perform honorably when it serves as the stick by bringing negative consequences for not performing appropriately.

When there is a lack of responsibility and clear expectations, human nature’s pride, fears, and natural tendency to cut corners and pursue self-serving behaviors come into play, leading to dishonorable behaviors. We’re seeing this trend worldwide.

Caprino: How do people develop accountability, and why are so many operating without it today?

Ellis: Accountability is best developed in an environment where it’s regularly demonstrated and emphasized by honorable, balanced leaders. Ideally this starts at home and school where parents and significant others demonstrate by their day-to-day behaviors that they are accountable.

Also, it’s reinforced when people have clear, defined responsibilities with clear expectations and then immediate accountability to celebrate or confront the results. When people don’t deliver on their promises, do their duty, or fulfill expectations and awkward consequences follow, they learn how the world works. Without confronting poor behavior or performance, leaders send a message that that you can underperform, ignore your responsibilities and promises, and nothing negative will happen. In the end, this does not serve anyone well.

Caprino: What are the most important, practical, step-by-step instructions to help business leaders build cultures of accountability?

Ellis: Our Courageous Accountability Model is anchored by its core of Character, Courage, and Commitment. Leaders must demonstrate accountability and that requires a consistent foundation of Character, Courage, and Commitment. It requires authenticity and vulnerability, admitting when you fall short and then quickly correcting back to course. Leaders must also communicate, as communications provide the threads that link all aspects of leadership and accountability. The four steps of the Courageous Accountability Model are described below:


This step begins at the highest level of mission, vision, values. People need to know the expected culture, the reason for the organization’s existence, and the vision of where you’re going together. Then a level deeper, confirm professional standards and organizational policies. The NFL is a good example here. In recent years they have scrambled to clarify policies for locker room behavior (Miami hazing) and domestic violence (such as the Raven’s Ray Rice).

Next, clarity is needed on a leader’s personal guidelines and preferences on how you want your organization or team to operate. Finally at a day-to-day level, clarify the details of the task or project. What is the expected outcome, what resources are you providing, what reporting do you want, etc.? Ask mutual questions back and forth to get on the same page.

Connect based on individual differences in natural talents.
Take into consideration the personal strengths and struggles of you and your team members. You can make a big mistake on the front end if you assign someone a task or project that requires talents they don’t have.

Connect with the heart.
Every person wants to feel valued and important, that they are contributing to their purpose in the overall organizational mission. Affirm and help them achieve their true potential. Frances Hesselbein (in her book  Hesselbein on Leadership) shared this:

Dispirited, unmotivated, unappreciated workers cannot compete in a highly competitive world.

Making people feel valued and important is the essence of connection and is crucial for positive employee engagement.  (See the many benefits of positive employee engagement here.)

This step is about having an ongoing dialogue so you as the leader know enough about team and organizational progress. At the same time, you’re providing support by coaching, training, and correcting individuals where needed to help them be successful. Millennials especially want collaboration.

Close out

If you have done the previous steps, then you conclude with either Celebration or Confrontation.


It’s hard for many highly results-oriented people, but it’s important. People need the cycle of work hard, achieve goals, and celebrate successes.


Confrontation is difficult for most people, but since not all things turn out well, it’s essential for a healthy organization. It requires courage, a good plan executed with care and respect for the other person.

Caprino: How can leaders accurately assess their own leadership capability?

Ellis: Leadership development must start with self-awareness, and our online assessment tool (Leadership Behavior DNA™ Discovery Process) has been used by thousands of leaders to gain an objective view of their specific talents—their natural strengths and struggles. The goal is to maximize strengths while acknowledging their struggles and working on a few of them in order to grow as a leader.

Leaders learn to manage each individual uniquely based on their natural DNA behaviors (strengths and struggles). For example, managing an introvert (typically focused and self-managing) is very different from managing an extrovert (typically not as focused, need more personal interaction, not very self-managing). These insights are critical for successful leadership and people development.

Caprino: Why are accountability and self-awareness so very critical for the next generation of leaders?

Ellis: Millennial expert Tim Elmore, of Growing Leaders, cites several issues that concern employers hiring Millennials. Two of those issues are closely tied to accountability.

Work ethic. Grads lacked old-fashioned grit and expressed unwillingness to serve beyond the job description, to do whatever it takes to get a task done.

Responsibility. They were unable or unwilling to assume sole responsibility for their work. It was as if they wanted to “rent” their job, not own it.”

In the fifties and sixties, most young people were married and starting families by their mid-twenties. That’s a lot of responsibility and definite accountability for being autonomous. I believe the younger generations are more likely to have been sheltered from failure and its consequences.  (Read more about Elmore’s views on seven crippling parenting behaviors that keep children from growing into leaders.)

Today, this is an era when the home, school, church, and community are all struggling, lacking the foundations and leadership to set the example and teach accountability. Workplace leaders have the most vested interests developing the younger generations. The good thing is that millennials in general like to be coached and developed. So you could say the conditions are ripe for helping them develop.

Caprino: Lee, how does your experience as an Air Force jet fighter pilot and former Vietnam POW inform your work today?

Ellis: The military is keen on developing leaders starting in the earliest education and training programs, so it started when I was a freshman in college and continued throughout my twenty-five-year career. I held leadership positions at every rank from captain through colonel. However, much of my philosophy was honed in the POW camps as the youngest and most junior ranking person in the group. I learned by watching the character, courage, and commitment of senior ranking officers like Stockdale, Denton, Risner, and Guarino and my own immediate cell leader Captain Ken Fisher. In this crucible, leaders typically suffered the most torture and were humbled beyond belief, yet they bounced back to courageously lead with honor. In that setting, I became committed to not only “Return with Honor” but to always do my best to live and lead with honor.

Read the original article on Forbes.