Authoritative Leaders Need Not Apply

It seems to me that the concept of accountability is getting a bad rap. I had someone tell me the other day that the reason I don’t see accountability as a bad thing is because I spent 25 years in the Navy. What the heck does that mean? When I asked for clarity, I was told that accountability is a form of authoritative leadership. That it might work in the military but doesn’t work in the civilian world.

Clearly, this person has an impression of the military born out by countless movies portraying military life. An endless stream of drill sergeants screaming in your face, spewing obscenities and threats until you are shaking in your boots, willing to do anything to stop the tirade. I’m not going to say that kind of thing never happened. But it certainly didn’t happen with either the frequency or intensity portrayed in the movies.  And to be clear, it isn’t the reason people in the military follow orders.

True Leadership

When I joined the Navy, our core values were honor, courage, and commitment.  They embedded those values in every aspect of our initial training and all subsequent formal and informal training as well.  To this day, I remember how scared I was when we had to demonstrate that we knew how to don our gas masks. By being placed in a gas chamber that we knew was going to be filled with noxious smoke of some kind.  We had to go in with our masks in our hands, wait until the smoke started rolling in, and then put our masks on properly – all in the dark!

The instructor reminded us that as corpsmen (aka medics) we might need to enter dangerous situations in order to assist a fallen sailor.  He emphasized the reason we trained relentlessly for this. We prepared well, and that if we kept our heads, we would be fine. He also reassured us that there would be an instructor in there with us to be sure we would be safe.  That was honor and commitment in action on the instructor’s part. There was no amount of screaming or threats that would have driven most of us into that gas chamber. What it took was courage and commitment. We knew that because those values were a real part of our every-day existence.   

True accountability is an internal motivator. When an organization’s embeds its values in every facet of an employee’s experience, they take ownership of their behavior. They will hold themselves accountable for meeting your expectations because they know it’s the right thing to do – no threats, overt or implied, required.  How do you hold people accountable?

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