Accountability: A fundamental pillar of engaged leadership

  • Published
  • By Col. Harry A. Truhn
  • 8th Maintenance Group commander
Accountability can seem like a flashy buzz word used by leadership. However, this is actually a conscious effort to restore our services' credibility. From the nuclear enterprise to the tanker leasing scandals, it had become apparent that adherence to standards must be enforced and we must be held accountable for our actions. Yet, I find, the word accountability confusing in its meaning and its application. Senior leadership hasn't thus far sent an official definition of what it means, so I wanted to take this opportunity to describe its meaning to me, how I apply it and why it's important to us as Air Force leaders. defines accountability as: the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable. While this definition captures the functional meaning, it fails to encase the essence of organizational accountability.

Just as your body has two lungs; a fully functioning, organizational accountability structure requires an active and interlinked feedback-follow-up system. This feedback-follow-up system is a loop that must be triggered by engagement. Having your "finger on the pulse" of your unit is the first step in keeping the entity and individuals accountable. Accountability is a living process that cannot be viewed as "after the fact" follow-up actions that place blame to names. Accountability does not necessarily mean punishment. This is a common misconception. Though punishment may be an integral part of holding someone accountable, it in itself is not accountability.

In the March 1982 Atlantic Magazine, there is interesting article by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson called Broken Windows. This article discusses the efforts of Newark, New Jersey to improve its quality of life. What is relevant to this topic was the author's revelation that if a window in a building was left broken/unrepaired, soon all the remaining windows would become broken too. Sociologists realized that one un-repaired window signaled that "no one cared" and breaking the remaining windows had "no cost."

This is the same for our Air Force. If processes are left broken and left unidentified/rectified, the impression given is that no one cares and there is no cost to leave them in a derelict state. Airmen want to know that leadership is engaged and they care about what they do. Give them the chance to show you how they do things right. Ask them to teach you even if you are yourself an expert on the subject. This gives them an increased sense of importance and allows you ascertain their level of involvement/proficiency with their tasks/duties. Ask questions, not to "stump the chump," but to engage in creative thinking. This enables a great forum for feedback and you, as a leader, can make adjustments as necessary.

In maintenance, our rules are clearly laid out in our AFIs, manuals, technical orders, policy letters and in engineer guidance. It can be simple at times to discover if we are within our standards and if we are producing quality products. I'm an advocate for a strong, empowered Quality Assurance Program because it is a force multiplier as they bring daily feedback from the units and plot trends for attention/action.

However, accountability goes beyond maintenance. It extends to all AFSCs and functions of the Air Force. No matter what the process is, it is vitally important to engage with both process owners and customers to gauge the status of your programs and the quality of your products/customer service. The customers can provide insight to their needs and lead towards process improvements.

Set goals, lay out your expectations. Hold yourself accountable for following-up and engaging in "leadership by walking around." Leading through email/phone is like a motorized policeman compared to a beat cop. Mr. Kelling and Mr. Wilson explained that motorized police officers are more likely to deal with citizens by rolling down the window and peering out at them. The door and the window become barriers and people view them as aliens or outsiders. A beat cop knows the neighborhood and the people. They become more approachable and they can sense subtle changes in the atmosphere of their areas.

Maybe I'm old school, but punishment does not always mean paperwork. Sometimes it's far more effective to have someone standing tall accepting responsibility for their actions/inactions. A significant emotional event that doesn't burn someone can transform a non-performer into an advocate for compliance. Another thing to consider is the health of the organization. Do not shy away from conflict. Understand that some individuals have been promoted beyond their capabilities to perform. Sometimes hard, life changing decisions will have to be made. If they are not, non-effective leaders will end up in higher positions of authority/responsibility.

Peer pressure for compliance and accountability is the sign that sustainment has taken hold. When an Airman turns to another to correct their behavior, then you know (as Maslow would say) your team has reached the performing stage.

Some final thoughts: trust your gut--it will not lead you astray, never shy away from conflict or be afraid to admit (publicly) when you are wrong, be an active listener--some of the best ideas come from the quietest voices, and never be afraid of asking 'why' or being asked 'why'--these questions instill confidence in leaders and promote creative thinking.

Now, I've taken you full-circle. Accountability is a fundamental pillar of engaged leadership. It recognizes that punishment is only a tool. One must hold oneself accountable first, lead by example, and begin the interlinked feedback-follow-up system. Once buy-in is achieved, there are no limits to the achievements capable within your organizations.