Accountability in Leadership: Stop These 5 Bad Habits

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" by Marshall Goldsmith. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is accountability important in leadership? What are the five bad habits that you should look out for and improve on?

Accountability in leadership is important to being respected by your employees and fellow leaders. However, many leaders tend to make these mistakes—even if they don’t notice it.

These five bad habits all relate to avoiding accountability in leadership: making excuses for your poor behavior and refusing to take responsibility for your actions.

Bad Habit #1: Blaming Others for Your Mistakes

This bad habit is also known as “passing the buck.” If you’re a leader, “passing the buck” may mean trying to entirely blame your subordinates for their poor performance when, as the person in charge, you should be taking responsibility for at least a part of the failure. 

Often, leaders are drawn to blaming others for their mistakes because they can’t bear the thought of appearing flawed. They think admitting they’re imperfect and mess up from time to time will make them look weak. 

In reality, the opposite is true. Admitting that you’ve made a mistake takes strength and courage. It’s a humbling gesture that people generally respect. In contrast, if you blame others for your missteps, you’ll lose the respect of those around you. You’ll seem disloyal, devious, and willing to sacrifice others for your own gain. 

The Healthier Behavior: Fully accept the blame for things that are your fault and tell your team members that you’re doing so. Show them that you’re willing to be accountable for your actions. You’ll gain respect in the process.

Bad Habit #2: Blaming Your Past Struggles for Your Current Bad Behavior

Things from our past undeniably affect who we are today. For example, if you have low self-esteem, it may be because your parents didn’t praise you enough. If you struggle to interact with or respect authority figures, it may be because your parents were overly controlling. 

However, you can’t use the troubles of your past to absolve yourself of responsibility for bad behavior in the present. Although people may be sympathetic towards your past struggles, they’ll still question why you think it’s appropriate to take them out on other people in the form of bad behavior. If you continue to do so, they’ll lose respect for you. 

For example, imagine you get criticized by a superior for being overly aggressive with your team members. You believe you’ve developed this aggressive aspect of your personality because your father was frequently aggressive during your childhood, and you explain this to your boss. 

You might think that your boss will be so sympathetic to your plight that they’ll give you a “free pass” to keep acting harmfully. After all, your aggression isn’t really your fault. In reality, your boss will probably express sorrow that you were treated that way, but question why you haven’t taken steps to deal with your past in a healthy way. Ultimately, your troubled relationship with your father isn’t your coworkers’ problem. Why should they suffer because of it?

The Healthier Behavior: Try to develop a healthier relationship with your past and lessen its impact on your present behavior. For instance, you could talk to a therapist about what you’ve been through and how you can move past it. This isn’t by any means a quick or easy fix, but it’s a necessary step to take if you want to stop sabotaging your present and future. Likewise, consistently remind yourself that being treated badly in the past doesn’t give you an excuse to behave badly in the present. If your past does drive you to act in a destructive way, take accountability, apologize, and work to do better in the future. 

Bad Habit #3: Making Your Personality the Excuse for Your Bad Behavior

This habit involves trying to excuse your bad behavior by blaming it on an innate personality trait that you can’t control. For example, you may try to excuse getting angry at others by saying, “Sorry I shouted at you, I have a naturally quick temper.” You may try to shirk responsibility for lateness by saying, “Sorry, I’m just really bad at time management. It’s who I am.” 

Some people genuinely believe that their poor behavior is an unshakeable part of their personality. They may have been acting in this negative way for so long that they can’t imagine a different way of living. For instance, tardiness may have started in childhood with being consistently late for school.

However, in most cases, change is possible. We’re not born lazy, tardy, or rude—we’ve learned these behaviors over our lifetimes. This means that we can unlearn them, too. If you refuse to do this, people are going to lose respect for you. They’re going to see you as someone who’s too lazy or too uncaring to bother to improve themselves. 

The Healthier Behavior: If you find yourself excusing a harmful behavior because you think you’re irredeemably bad at something, challenge this thought. Honestly consider whether you’re actually unable to change this behavior, or if you’re just unwilling to try. If the latter is the case, make a commitment to changing. It won’t be easy, but people will respect you for it.

Bad Habit #4: Refusing to Change Under the Guise of ‘Authenticity’

Many self-help manuals laud the importance of “living authentically”: accepting and letting loose the “real you.” In theory, living authentically isn’t a bad thing. Expressing your real self is much healthier—emotionally and mentally—than pretending to be someone you’re not. However, some leaders take this principle a little too far. They start to use “authenticity” as a justification for their bad behavior.

Leaders who adopt this bad habit become fiercely protective of their right to behave badly. They believe that their harmful habits should be celebrated because they’re a part of their “authentic self”—a part of what makes them uniquely special. In their eyes, abandoning their poor behaviors would be disingenuous and disloyal to themselves, so they refuse to do so.

For example, an executive Goldsmith worked with refused to give his subordinates praise because he believed that praising people just wasn’t “him.” He argued that giving his colleagues encouragement would make him feel like a “phony.” 

People who engage in this habit become so focused on protecting their own feelings—specifically, their feelings of being authentic and true to themselves—that they stop caring about how their behavior makes other people feel. This selfishness and lack of care for others severely harm their reputation.

The Healthier Behavior: Stop seeing the idea of changing your bad behavior through the lens of “how will doing this make me feel? Will it make me feel like a phony?” Remember that your feelings aren’t the only ones that matter. Instead, think “how will changing my behavior make others feel? Is remaining “authentic” to myself worth the damage that I’m currently doing to both other people and my own reputation?” 

Bad Habit #5: Never Apologizing

Many successful people deeply struggle with the idea of apologizing. They find saying sorry painful and humiliating, because they think it makes them look weak. They believe people will look down on them if they admit they’re fallible.

However, Goldsmith argues that apologizing actually puts you in a strong position because it gets people on your side. It’s the first step in encouraging people to forgive you for your past transgressions. It helps both parties to overcome the hurt of the past and move forward together. Apologizing also makes people respect you more. It demonstrates that despite your success, you’re humble enough to recognize that you’re not above accepting accountability.

In contrast, if you don’t apologize for your wrongdoings, the people who’ve suffered because of your actions will become bitter. They’ll think you don’t care about them or their feelings. You’ll gain a reputation for being callous, unfeeling, and arrogant enough to think that your harmful actions don’t matter.

The Healthier Behavior: When you’ve done something wrong, apologize to the person or people affected by your behavior. Don’t let your pride get in the way of making amends. If you do, you’ll only upset people further and damage your reputation. We’ll explore apologizing and its importance further in Chapter 8.

Accountability in Leadership: Stop These 5 Bad Habits

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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