the ceo magazine, leadership,
Lee Ellis, President, Leadership Freedom® LLC

Do you watch trends? For some leaders, it’s easy to pick up on patterns and trends in business and culture. For other leaders, it’s not as intuitive. Unfortunately, the decline in accountability and honorable behavior in our culture is a hard trend to miss. The business sector is making some good inroads to stem this tide, but it’s still a challenge at every level from the executive office down to the warehouse. Dishonorable behaviors have always been a problem especially where there is power or money at stake. If you’re concerned about this downward trend affecting your bottom line performance, what can you do?

We always have to focus first on what we can control and that is ourselves. In preparing to write my new book, Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability, I read several excellent books on the subject of accountability. The Oz Principle is one of the most famous. I was especially attracted to their third principle which basically says that when you’re disappointed in the performance of your people, you have to point the finger at yourself first. When we hold ourselves accountable as business leaders for being responsible, we set an example for others and that gives us credibility to develop them to be accountable too.

As a POW in North Vietnam for more than five years, I witnessed the interconnected (or interdependent) relationship of honor and accountability in the harshest conditions imaginable. In that crucible of torture and abuse, our leaders were steadfast. With character, courage, and commitment, they sacrificially set the example for the rest of us. In the face of great suffering they held themselves accountable to do their best to serve.

Their example marked my life and leadership until this day, and here’s what I learned – 

Commit to a set of non-negotiable behaviors to guard your character and protect your honor. Consider these seven behaviors from The Honor Code that we use with clients:     

1. Tell the truth even when it’s difficult.

2. Treat others with dignity and respect.       

3. Keep your word and your commitments.

4. Be ethical.

5. Act responsibly; do your duty, and be accountable.

6. Be courageous.

7. Live your values.

These behaviors may look simple and easy, but I believe they’re quite difficult to uphold. I regularly find myself correcting back on course. And once you start working on these foundational non-negotiables, it’s easier to understand why there are so many problems in business. Living by them requires character, courage, and commitment, and it works best when it’s accompanied by honor’s guardian companion—accountability.

Now clearly, this idea of accountability is one that we all realize is crucial to a successful business (or society), yet somehow it’s gotten a bad name. I’d like to make the case that it’s not only essential, but it can be a very positive leadership tool for getting good results—and  the single most effective way to develop next generation leaders. Accountability gets results when you have a plan to follow.

Make accountability a part of your daily life by following the four-step Courageous Accountability Model™. 

1. Clarify. Make sure that you have clarity about expectations, starting at the highest level of mission, vision, and values. Then ensure that everyone is on the same page about standards, policies, and the work itself. Your people should have a very clear picture of what you want to happen.

2. Connect. Evidence continues to grow that a team or business is more productive when their leaders are connected with them in positive ways. The truth is that every person wants to feel appreciated and that their work is making a difference. Employee engagement is one of the key roles of leaders—to connect with people at a heart level so they feel valued.

3. Collaborate. This step seems so easy. “Sure I like to collaborate,” you say. But when faced with challenges, ambiguity, and hard choices, the negative emotions can come quickly. Fear, anger, pride, distrust, shame, and guilt are natural first responses that drive us toward the impulse to dominate or withdraw. Neither response works in the long run. The goal is to learn to collaborate by engaging with others to work through issues with courage, confidence, humility, and respect.

And it especially requires you to manage yourself and manage differences uniquely. We use behavioral assessments like Leadership Behavior DNA™ to help leaders better understand the unique strengths, struggles, and communication style of themselves and their team members. You cannot manage everyone the same.

4. Closeout. If you have diligently followed the steps above, the critical parameters are in place for you to celebrate success! Don’t be afraid or reluctant to celebrate. It’s the best way to bring closure to achieving a goal—it meets our natural desire to feel good about our work and our achievements.

For those times when you’ve applied and managed the steps above and it did not turn out well, you have to courageously confront the situation and the person with well thought-out consequences. It’s the only fair thing to do, and it benefits everyone: the person, the team, the organization, and you the leader.

Take the challenge to engage with honor and embrace its guardian companion, accountability. You will reap great business benefits in the long run for yourself as well as the next generation of leaders that can positively influence our society.

About the Author

As president of Leadership Freedom® LLC, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, Lee Ellis consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, human performance, and succession planning. His media appearances include interviews on CNN, CBS This Morning, C-SPAN, ABC World News, and Fox News Channel. A retired Air Force Colonel, his upcoming September 2016 book is entitled Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability. Learn more at


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