Leadership Accountability: Owning Failure and Building Trust

Ten years ago, I gave a talk on FAST leadership and discussed the French Rail system’s failure to pass through stations due to trains being too big, which cost 50-100 million Euros to fix.

When I talked about this, one of the questions I was asked was, ‘So who is accountable for the failure? The leader had the vision, but his team failed to implement it. The leader delegated the work to the experts, but…‘.

I was a little rude as I interrupted the question, but I thought that it was important to make the point that it’s the leader who is always accountable.

This is a key part of the role; as Harry S Truman said, ‘The buck stops here‘.

As leaders, we can delegate responsibility, i.e., we can ask someone else to do the work, but we cannot delegate accountability.

When we start to look to delegate accountability, what we are really doing is looking for someone to blame.

The questioner then went on to say ‘But they assigned the tasks to experts, surely it’s they who are accountable!‘.

It’s true that the work was delegated to experts, but it’s also true that it’s up to the leader to make sure that the right quality checks are in place to ensure that the work done is at the right standard, and if they don’t do that then they risk failure.

We cannot just rely on someone because they are experts, and I don’t mean to belittle experts here, we all make mistakes, and it’s put to the leader to ensure that these mistakes are avoided.

I remember on one project where I was the project leader we had an urgent change to make to the system. The experts made the change but I needed to sign it off.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to double-check the change, so I trusted the experts.

The change was applied, and yes you guessed it, it crashed the system and disrupted the services for a couple of hours.

I couldn’t believe it, the team were usually extremely reliable, they checked and double-checked before putting things live. So I thought that this time it would be okay for me to forego my final check.

When we got the call from the Head of Customer Service to explain the problem, everyone expected me to take the experts with me, so that I could explain the error that had been made.

But I chose to go and see him alone. Because it was me that had not done the necessary check, yes they had made a mistake, but I was accountable for the system, I was accountable for ensuring system stability, but I had not done that.

So I went to face the music, made my explanation of what happened, made my apologies, and told them what corrective action we would take to ensure it didn’t happen again – which was that basically no matter how busy I was, I would double check the changes, and make sure the right questions have been asked.

Interestingly many people thought I wanted to go alone so I could lay the blame at the door of the experts, and there was a lot of surprise when they heard that I had accepted full accountability.

But as a leader, I am fully accountable.

By taking this action, whilst I had to take a little heat, what really happened was that this significantly increased the level of trust that the team had in me, and made it much easier for me to lead them going forward.

Leadership is not just about creating a vision, it’s also about ensuring that the vision is successfully implemented, and as leaders, we are accountable for that successful implementation, because when you’re the leader the buck stops here.

Have you ever been involved in failure, where either the leader accepted the accountability for failure or tried to lay the blame? What was the impact on the team when they did that?

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