January 31, 2024

Accountability – Responsibility

Are accountability and responsibility, the same?  Are they equal to one another? Or, do they mean and stand for entirely different things? Well, let’s dig in.

There’s the old question of what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Well don’t worry, I’m not even going to try to address that one. Instead, I have a little something different in mind. Let’s talk about accountability and responsibility. 

Are accountability and responsibility, the same?  Are they equal to one another? Or, do they mean and stand for entirely different things? Well, let’s dig in. According to dictionary.com, accountability is the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable. The strongest match within the thesaurus to accountability is liability, and strong matches include answerability and blameworthiness. 

Responsibility is defined as the state or fact of being responsible, answerable, or accountable for something within one’s power, control, or management. According to the thesaurus, the strongest matches to responsibility include authority, burden, duty, guilt, importance, and obligation. Strong matches include albatross, amenability, care, charge, and culpability. 

These two words certainly exist in the same neighborhood, and I agree the two work together. I just don’t believe they are the same or parallel as much as I believe one builds into the other. 

It’s been my experience that you first start with accountability. As an example, I’ll use growing up and having chores to complete on a daily or weekly basis. Chores come with a certain level of consequence if not completed as assigned. That consequence can be many things, it can be discipline to the level of staying in your room, not playing with toys, and maybe not leaving the house to play outside. Essentially, not completing chores may mean some freedoms normally granted will be restricted or outright eliminated. At the end of the day, if my chores were not completed, I was held accountable.  That accountability meant some of my freedoms were removed. 

Here’s the thing about accountability though, once you really learn about accountability, you grow into a different person. Once you learn that accountability comes hand and hand with a consequence, you find a true appreciation for the meaning of the word “accountability”. As a young person who understands what it means to be accountable, you graduate with a different title.  You become (in the eyes of others) “responsible”.

In my experience, accountability (due to the possibility of consequence) has been the foundation and building block of meeting the coveted title of responsibility. I don’t think I’ve ever been found responsible without first exhibiting a particular level of accountability to that end. 

Let’s transition from adolescence into adulthood and the work environment.  As an adult in the workforce, we are held accountable (or at least we should be) for our duties as outlined by employers and supervisors. 

As I’ve stated earlier, I believe accountability is a building block to responsibility. That said, hear me out.  As a leader, you are held accountable for the team and duties of such under your charge.  Under your charge, is your responsibility. 

The buck stops with the leader, regardless of duties assigned to others, that leader is fully responsible for the outcome or output of the team as a whole. So, let’s be clear, you cannot expect anyone to accomplish tasks if they aren’t properly trained. For everyone in the cheap seats, this means a leader’s first responsibility to the agency mission and people under his or her charge must be proper training.  After training is conducted, clearly understood, and properly applied, staff should be held accountable for the task at hand. 

There can be no accountability without a clear understanding of the task to be completed and a way to do so.  Now keep in mind that leaders at this point can delegate authority to accomplish tasks, but never responsibility.  Remember, the buck always stops with leadership and even during the delegation of authority, ultimately the responsibility for accomplishment still lies with the leader. 

There are layers to leadership. As leaders, we are charged to ensure continuity of operations.  When I say continuity of operations, it’s probably not what others may think.  What I mean by continuity of operations is succession. Proper succession explains and proves that operations will continue if/when hardships arise. Succession is the way of moving forward for organizations that show a pathway of growth into the next level.  

My unwritten, but very vocalized rule in leadership is to prepare your staff to replace you.  This in essence is succession through growth preparation and true continuity of operations. As a leader, I have a duty to ensure personnel are properly trained.  When staff are properly trained and equipped for challenges that ensure growth, they find themselves prepared to move up to higher levels of expertise and understanding. 

Make no mistake, the supreme duty of any leader is to carry out the functions and mission of the organization. This cannot be done without people. Leaders accomplish missions through people. 

A leader is accountable for ensuring team members are properly trained so they in turn can accomplish tasks. The success of any organization rests on the shoulders of those who work within it. Effective leaders learn to delegate duties to those proficient team members, so they (the leader) don’t have to accomplish every task by themselves. As a rule of thumb, remember the wisdom of John Maxwell who loosely stated any task a team member can complete at 80% proficiency of the leader is good enough for delegation.   

Even though duties can be delegated, leaders are always ultimately responsible.  When leaders are left in responsible charge of anything, they should always be held accountable for wrongdoing identified on their watch. This is the unfortunate truth of leadership.  Now remember in leadership, where there are no guts, there’s no glory. Simply put, when you win, you did well; if you lose, the leader is often at fault!

Transparency at all levels provides a foundation of trust and honesty that can be felt much more than it is seen. My perspective is that anytime a leader is willing to inspect him/herself, admit mistakes, and learn from them; there is often no need for accountability or the consequences of such!


One Response

  1. Thank you for such a well written and clear explanation of the two. With this clarity I can better evaluate myself and my team in matters related to our accountability and responsibility. Thank you!

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