“If you can keep your head when all about you  

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,”

You will no doubt recognise the above as the famous introduction to Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, and such calmness in the face of chaos increasingly comes to define the success of the modern leader.

Whilst we undoubtedly live in times of immense change, no one wants their leader to be someone that adds to that sense of chaos and uncertainty.  Indeed, as Kipling might have said, for the leader that can do that, “yours is the earth, and everything in it”.

Central to the premise of both the poem, and modern leadership, is the ability to calmly take responsibility, even in the most challenging of circumstances.  It’s something that not only defines the best leaders, but also the best teams.

Of course, it isn’t easy to stand up and take responsibility, especially when you are proposing something that is novel and different, but this is not something that we should regard as a modern malaise.  Indeed, Machiavelli famously documented the challenges of such novel thinking in The Prince.

“There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to be a leader in the introduction of changes.  For he who innovates will have for enemies all those who are well off under the old order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new,” he wrote.

So I won’t pretend that taking responsibility is easy, but neither is it new or unique to you.  Sadly many of our organisations are designed to strip people of responsibility, enabling them to pass the buck and leave the hard decisions to someone else.

A culture of responsibility

With adaptability to change such a crucial requirement of modern working life, what can you do to change things?  As you can perhaps imagine, this isn’t as simple as sending people on a training course, and much of it lies in the culture that underpins our organisational way of being, and changing this will require a multi-pronged attack that may be difficult for you to achieve from your current position in the organisation.

That doesn’t mean that you can do your own version of passing the blame however, as there are things you can do to shift the dial in your own work and your own relationships with colleagues.  The first step is to be totally clear about what you want people to take responsibility for:

  • Are you expecting your people to take ownership for problems, to be accountable, to look for solutions no matter what the costs or can they only do so within parameters, and if so what are those parameters?
  • Should your people deliver an amazing customer experience every time, whatever it takes, because you know that the experience you provide creates loyalty with customers as well as generates customer advocacy?
  • The working environment and the atmosphere within your workplace can often be an area of uncertainty – what can your people take ownership for? The look, feel and tidiness of the workplace are often things that your people can take total accountability for.
  • Having longer and more in depth conversations with customers to gather insight around real customer problems to fuel innovation, whether that be new product development, proposition enhancement (or simplification) or changes to the service experience?

3 components of personal accountability

If you want your team to begin taking responsibility for their actions however, you first need to ensure three vital components are in place:

  1. Understanding – Does your team understand the goals of their organisation, and indeed how their own role contributes to these goals? Do they understand what is expected of them each day and what good looks like?  Do they realise what the consequences are if standards slip?  Do they know how to reach out for support in reaching those standards and how to communicate progress?
  2. Engagement – Are your team sufficiently engaged and motivated to strive for high standards? Do you, and your organisation, make them feel sufficiently valued and supported?  Is communication open and two way?  Are successes shared and employees thanked for their efforts?
  3. Ownership – With these in place, you can then begin to develop ownership among employees, both for their role and their performance. People will begin to take responsibility for their situation and look for solutions to problems they encounter rather than complaining, blaming or passing the buck.  Employees will feel confident enough not only to take ownership for success, but also for failure and identify ways to improve and learn from those mistakes.

So what’s your role as a leader?  To provide all the answers? Some answers maybe, but actually it can be more around asking the right questions. Questions to provoke thinking and prompt questions, both of which ultimately help understanding.

Do your team know that you are there to help and support them as they attempt to take responsibility and stretch themselves?  Do they know how and when that support will come, and what it will look like? As a leader you want people to stretch themselves and take on greater challenges but in doing so you want people to feel they can take responsibility without fear of being hung out to dry if things don’t go quite according to plan.  So, if you know someone is stepping up to a challenge, make sure you ask them what support or development they need to enable them to succeed – the impact of just asking the questions is uplifting for the individual themselves

If leaders don’t demonstrate accountability how can you expect it to be part of your culture and imagine that your people will take accountability.  So, when was the last time you ducked taking accountability or looked for someone else to make the decision, or wanted the comfort of knowing you could point the finger elsewhere.?

John Winning, Group CEO of Winning Group and three times  winner of The CEO Magazine’s Executive of the Year – Retail award since 2013 recently reaffirmed how important it is to take accountability for the customer…

“All of our senior executives will receive 2 lots of negative feedback from our customers per week, and we have to call them ourselves and find a solution. In a traditional business, there would be a department that deals with that stuff, but we want to make sure that we always stay in touch with the customer. To me, there is no-one more accountable for problems than the execs, to be honest. It’s absolutely critical so that we don’t forget why we come to work. It also helps us to stand by the mistakes together as a team.”

Changing the mindset to embrace ownership, initiative and accountability is not easy to do, especially when times are challenging.  Accepting that the buck may stop with them is a far cry from doing only what they are instructed to do but your role as a leader is to model the desired behaviours, provide clarity to people and support people to rise to the challenge.  It isn’t easy, but now is the time to make the start, and begin helping your team to ‘claim the earth, and everything in it’.