Leadership Blog

Accountability: The Challenge for Leaders

Getting team members to take responsibility can be frustrating at times.  Most leaders have experience of individuals who do not take responsibility, need a lot of direction and avoid being held accountable.

The first question has to be, how far is this of your own making?  If you keep most of the team decision making to yourself and team members feel that their input is optional, they may “opt out” of being responsible.

Clarity from the Leader

What can remedy the situation is implementing an inclusion and decision-making strategy that Interaction Associates call, “Levels of Involvement.” Leaders who include team members in decision making set up people to accept responsibility simply by involving them more.

We like this concept as it clarifies who is to make decisions and how.  For example, a leader addressing a team might say, “Let’s discuss this for a while and then I’ll make a call (decision) on what we do next”.  Clear lines of decision making.

They could also say, “Can we all discuss this and then I think it best if Joan makes the decision, it’s her area and she has to implement it.”   Clearly Joan is in the lead on this issue.

The key here is to signal the at what level of authority is required and who is empowered to make the decision.  Clarity on this goes a long way to engendering accountability.

Accountability – For Results

We have listed below some ideas on creating a culture of accountability.  Again, clarity and communicating intentions loom large.  To create a culture of accountability focus on results, not activities - a winning organisation - is about achieving objectives.  This requires the leader to define roles and responsibility for getting results.

A leader’s agenda for offering clarity on who is to be held accountable might include:

  • Be clear about objectives and results
  • Assign objectives to people at all levels
  • Follow up with regular reports on progress
  • Review with individuals at agreed intervals
  • Review as a team to communicate and learn
  • Recognise and reward results
  • Recognise success.

It will also require open and forthright conversations about poor performance – it’s too important to let it go.  People need to know what they are responsible for and to whom?

And, where there is willingness, but issues remain, provide resources and remove road blocks for people.  To do this, start by asking:

  • What is stopping you achieving your objectives?
  • What do you need to help you?

A Leader Needs to Listen and Act

What this means in practice is listening to understand what is going on and then you will be better placed to offer a support package that will work for the individual.  Try this approach:

  • Listen to conversations around you
  • Are people talking commitment and “can do”
  • What action you can take to encourage this
  • Ask people above you to clarify top objectives and measures
  • Be clear about who has responsibility and what is expected of them in terms of results
  • Agree what help is needed and follow through with delivery
  • Check out how we will all know when commitments are met and results achieved.


Leadership of People and of Things

There was a newspaper article this week (20 December 2014) about the International Space Station (ISS) and an astronaut using a 3D printer to make socket wrench in space.  This is mind-boggling stuff.  World changing technology that transforms the way we can communicate and respond to problems. 

We, as leaders, need to understand and harness new capabilities or we are yesterday’s men and women.  Think about it.  I can send you the solution to a problem in a way that you can create or recreate it remotely, in hours.  Yes, you need the equipment but the potential is enormous.  It can save time, money and environmental violation.

In this case the digital design was emailed to a zero gravity printer on the ISS and used to produce a working ratchet.  Fantastic. Astronauts on the space station used a zero gravity 3D printer to produce a working socket wrench complete with ratchet action – using digital plans that were emailed to the station by Nasa mission control.

Engineers at Made in Space, which built the experimental printer, overheard space station astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore mention on the radio that he needed a socket wrench.  The company used computer-aided design (CAD) to draw up plans, produced an earthbound version of the spanner for safety certification by Nasa, then had the plans relayed to the ISS, where it took four hours to print out the finished product.

“The socket wrench we just manufactured is the first object we designed on the ground and sent digitally to space, on the fly,” said Made In Space founder Mike Chen.  They designed one in CAD and sent it up to the ISS faster than a rocket ever could have.

The 3D printer was delivered to the ISS two months ago and the first thing it made was a sample component for itself.  The space agency hopes to one day use the technology to make parts for broken equipment in space.

The company plans to replace the orbiting demo machine with a bigger commercial printer next year. The European Space Agency plans to fly its own 3D printer in 2015.  Meanwhile the ratchet and other items made by the ISS printer will be returned to Earth for detailed comparison with corresponding parts produced on the ground.

Think how this might play out.  I need a fix for a machine and can’t wait two days – “it will be with you in two minutes and ready to use in one hour?”.  I’m house-bound and cannot get to the shop, “don’t worry madam, I’ll email the new version and you can create for yourself.”

The Internet of Things is another phenomenon.  It allows designers to greatly simplify processes and thus to save customers hours, not just the seconds they save with elegantly designed physical products.

We love the idea that an app can set up your heating to come on and off, open and close locked areas, switch on and off lights and so on, without you being present.   In society, it has enormous potential to liberate people with mobility problems.

We will see systems that, without human monitoring, can anticipate when they will stop working, elevators can that cut wait times by knowing where people want to go before they get on, and truck transmissions that can anticipate road gradients and shift gears automatically.

Take rental cars: Daimler AG’s Car2Go business greatly simplifies the process.  Customers don’t need to pick up or return cars to a set place.  A smartphone app directs them to the closest parked car for rent.  They unlock it with their membership card, drive to their destination, park their car on the street, lock it up and walk away.

Data from an airplane may not only be used for preventive maintenance on that particular plane, but in a fleet-wide service that schedules maintenance at the most convenient time for every aircraft.  Data from smart thermostats may be used to manage energy production by an electric utility, which in turn provides incentives to customers to reduce consumption.

One manufacturer has analysed data from its intelligent factory equipment to reduce energy usage, factory reconfiguration time and other factors that affect efficiency and cost.  It has improved productivity by six to eight percent.  And a maker of refrigeration equipment identified an opportunity to provide continuous temperature monitoring services for produce during transport.

Take automatic transmissions: ZF Friedrichshafen now offers a service that extends the life of truck transmissions and reduces fuel consumption.  The service collects data about drivers’ behaviour, adds GPS topographical data to its analysis, and tells a vehicle’s transmission computer when to shift gears.

The Internet of Things will have a profound impact.  This is leadership at its most exciting – life changing and transformational.  Who knows where it will go?  Are you in the know and thinking this way?


Learning to Lead as an Apprentice

Benjamin Franklyn is quoted as saying, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”


We have been running leadership development courses for years and one aspect that we understand well in theory and have difficulty with in practice, is make sure that skills developed in the training room are remembered and applied back in the workplace.

We use transformative projects, we employ coaching and we often advocate shadowing others with exemplar track records.  Our models of experiential learning work for many but for others we find a method called cognitive apprenticeship works best.  It is a hand-holding model and requires the time of experienced leaders.

This model is essentially the process where the experienced leader teaches their skill to an apprentice.  It brings tacit knowledge – those bits that are hard to document or see – into the open. 

Think of how we learn to cook a dish.  We follow all of what the cookbook says, and yet it doesn't turn out as it should.  We miss some of the subtlety that the cook has learned but finds hard to express.  Even if it gets a bit easier with the advent of YouTube demonstrations, we still often fail to replicate even simple dishes.  Think about how great it would be to have the cook standing beside you.

Masters of a skill often fail to take into account the implicit processes involved in carrying out complex skills when they are teaching others. We think this applies to leadership as with other complex and cognitive skills.

To combat these tendencies “cognitive apprenticeships” are designed, among other things, to bring these tacit processes into the open, where a learner can observe, enact, and practice them with help from an experienced leader. 

It is about modelling and in order for modelling to be successful, the apprentice leader must be attentive, must have access to and retain the information presented, must be motivated to learn, and must be able to and have the opportunity to accurately reproduce the desired skill.

There are six aspects to making the cognitive apprenticeship approach to leadership development work.  The first three (modeling, coaching, scaffolding) are at the core.  The next two (articulation and reflection) are designed to help learners fully understand, refine and adjust their leadership skills. The final step (exploration) intends to guide the learner towards independence and the ability to solve and identify problems on their own.




Modelling is when an expert, in our case an experienced leader, demonstrates a task explicitly so that the learner can experience and build a mental model of the task at hand.  For example, a leader might write out explicit steps and work through a problem aloud, demonstrating how they have learned to do it and how they apply themselves before, during and after the task at hand.



Coaching involves discussing a task or better still, observing the learner perform a task and then offering feedback and hints to hone the learner’s performance. The expert oversees the learner's tasks and may restructure the task to assist in their development.




Scaffolding is about putting into place strategies and methods to support the learner.  Supports can be assigned learning tasks, specific project activities, group work.  The experienced leader may have to execute parts of the task that the learner is not yet able to do. This requires the leader-as-teacher to have the skill to analyse and assess the learner’s abilities in the moment.




Articulation includes any method of getting the learner to articulate their knowledge, reasoning, or problem-solving process in a particular situation.  Three types of articulation are asking questions of the learner, encouraging them to think aloud, and encouraging them to observe, monitor and give a critical report back on what they have learned.



Reflection allows learners to compare their own problem-solving processes with those of an expert or another leader.  A technique for reflection could be to examine the past performances of both the expert and the novice leader and to highlight similarities and differences.  The goal of reflection is for the learner to look back and analyse their performance with a desire for understanding and improvement.



Exploration involves giving the learner room to problem solve on their own. This will involve the experienced leader slowly withdrawing the use of supports and scaffolds.  Exploration allows the learner to frame interesting problems within their world of work and then take the initiative to solve these problems.


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