“Leading with honor™” – Lee Ellis: Take these three steps to help restore the practice of healthy accountability Featured

9:05am EDT August 29, 2013
Lee Ellis,president, Leadership Freedom LLC Lee Ellis,president, Leadership Freedom LLC

Leading with honor™ by Lee Ellis

As a prisoner of war in the camps of North Vietnam for five years, I believe that my comrades and I saw the purest examples of leadership possible. Our senior leaders put their country and teammates above their own well-being to fulfill their responsibilities. They held themselves accountable first, which inspired us to follow. In the camps, life and death were at stake, but all leaders hold sway over the destiny of others.

As I travel today speaking and consulting, I repeatedly hear complaints about the dearth of courageous leaders — not managers or personalities — but leaders who will take responsibility for their actions and for those under them. Without accountability, organizations and people get off track, miss their goals and everything begins to deteriorate.

Can you think of some recent examples in the news or your personal situation? We all can!

Witness the unhealthy abuse and misuse of power, misappropriation of funds, mistakes in judgment and misinformation used for cover-ups. Surely something is amiss in our culture. We want the easy way out, and we don’t like doing difficult things.

Likewise, when we deviate from standards, our first reaction can be to deny or cover up to protect our image and reputation.

Accountability is not easy — it takes energy and a plan — and it requires courage to take difficult but necessary actions.

Accountable leaders are committed to their duty and their organizational values. They lay out expectations and then follow through to ensure things get done properly. What is needed is leadership founded on character, integrity and accountability in every sector of society. Here are three steps that will help restore the practice of healthy accountability. 

Communicate with clarity

Whether it’s a POW camp or a Fortune 500 company, leaders must go the extra mile to clarify and overcommunicate expectations at every level. From top to bottom, everyone should know the organization’s mission and values and be able to align with them. Leaders at every level must regularly clarify standards and performance expectations.

With clear communication, there should be no surprises in what’s expected. 

Demand responsibility

Each team member has a unique role to play to ensure that goals are accomplished and standards are met. Everyone must own his or her portion of the assigned goal and execute his or her personal duty.

If you have people reporting to you, make sure that they have been given the resources to accomplish that goal. Coach, mentor, develop and resource them as needed, and you will have done your part. Then, your people must do theirs or be held accountable. 

Act with courage

Leadership takes courage, and that means leaning into the pain of your fears to do what you know is right even when it doesn’t feel natural or safe.

A lack of courage in holding people accountable to standards is ripping gashes in our institutions — think of the issues at Penn State, the Atlanta Public School System, the Internal Revenue Service, Congress, Arthur Andersen, etc.

Remember, personal accountability comes first. Whether you’re a leader or a future leader, it begins with personal accountability. POW leaders where I was held went first into the crucibles of torture and suffering, setting the example for the rest of us. Likewise all leaders must set the example of what is expected.

Will you have the courage to do the “right” thing by obeying the laws of the land and putting your people and our country first before your own selfish goals and ambitions? Will you make sure the right things are happening for the right reasons?

If so, you will make a difference in the lives of those you lead — and in our country. We need your help.

Lee Ellis is a speaker and author of the award-winning book, “Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton,” in which he shares his experiences as a Vietnam prisoner of war and highlights leadership lessons learned in the camps. He is president of Leadership Freedom LLC and consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, team-building, executive development and succession planning. For more information, visit www.leadingwithhonor.com.