A Lesson in Accountability

I always thought I knew what accountability was, and what it meant to be accountable.

To me, to be accountable was to take responsibility for the situation. To be committed to the outcome, and to take ownership result. I always had a strong sense of self and looked to take personal accountability for the situations I found myself in, or the results achieved. I never looked to blame anyone else or tried to find excuses for poor performance.

I loved the quote by Rudyard Kipling We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.

No Excuses

To me that epitomized accountability.

But all that changed when I was made captain of my House Swimming Team at school. My House team had a great record We competed against three other Houses and in my time at the school, we had always been the best.

I took my role as captain very seriously ensuring that we had good candidates for each event and that we were well represented. One of the reasons we had a great team is that one of our swimmers swam for the county. He was head and shoulders above the others and he would swim in and win at least 5 events.

On the day of the swimming event sadly he called in sick. This was a bit of a blow because now I had to find adequate replacements for all the events he would swim in, and this would seriously jeopardize our chances of winning.

About an hour before the event started I got called by Miss Etherington, our Head of House, to her office to give her an update on the team. She knew that our best swimmer was out and wanted to know how I was handling it.

I told her that I had managed to find a replacement for four of the five races Paul would be swimming in, but it was impossible to find someone for the individual medley.

She looked at me and said, “as captain of the team, I am sure you know what you have to do.”

I said, “er not really because we need someone who can swim Butterfly, Backstroke, Breaststroke and Front Crawl and we don’t have anyone that can swim all those four”.

She looked at me again, smiled, and said “as Captain of the team, I am sure you know what you have to do”.

I looked at her and said, “but I have never swum a length of Butterfly or Backstroke in my life, so I am not sure if I could do it”.

She just smiled again and said, “as captain of the team, I am sure you know what you have to do”.

The Buck Stops Here

The individual medley was the last event, and as I stood on the starting blocks waiting for the start I had no idea what I was going to do.

I knew both strokes. I had seen them, I had even tried them. But I had never successfully swum either for more than 5 meters and here I was getting ready to start with 25m of Butterfly followed by 25m of Backstroke.

As the starter said “on your marks, get set and go”, I could feel the panic rise but I just dived in, arms wheeling in what I hoped was a Butterfly motion. I somehow managed to complete the first 25m, but I was knackered. A combination of nerves and poor style meant that I was a good 10 meters down on the leader. I had no energy left to try and make up the lost ground and barely enough left to complete the remaining three strokes.

I found the Backstroke easier than the Butterfly, but I still lost another 10-15 meters to the leader. By the time I was onto the Breastroke I was a good length behind and effectively out of the race and knew I would finish dead last.

So I slowed down and just focused on finishing because if I finished I would still get points for the team.

When I got out of the pool Miss Etherington came up to me and said “Congratulations”.

I said “Congratulations, but I finished dead last”.

She said, “Yes I know, but given that only 2 teams put swimmers in for the event your second place gives us the points we needed to win the trophy. If you hadn’t swum we would have finished second. So, congratulations.”

She smiled and said, “I knew I could rely on you to do the right thing. To find a solution. To be accountable and to step up and do it yourself if you couldn’t find anyone else.”

Swimming Lesson

This was probably the biggest lesson I learned in school and it helped me to redefine my definition of accountability, especially in terms of being a leader.

The buck stops with us, we should never ask someone to do something we are not prepared to do, and if there is no one else, then it’s down to us.

There may be forty million reasons, but there are no excuses.


If you want to learn about how to go from being a good manager to becoming a great leader select a time and let see how I can help.