When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that four of his fingers are pointing at himself.”

~Louis Nizer

“Accountability” is a great word. Not too long ago I was facilitating a meeting for a company’s leadership team. At one point, the CEO of the company remarked that if things didn’t go well, the employees would blame them. As I sat there, I thought to myself, who else should they blame? You guys are the leadership team! If not you, then who would be accountable for the success of the endeavor?

Many people mistake accountability for responsibility. There is a difference between the two words, and it is an important difference.

According to Webster, accountability is, “The quality or state of being accountable; an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” Okay, that one is not so clear.

Wikipedia states, “In ethics and governance, accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving. In leadership roles, accountability is the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies.” A little clearer. says it is, “The obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner.” Still a little cloudy. says, “The main difference between responsibility and accountability is that responsibility can be shared while accountability cannot. Being accountable means being not only responsible for something but also ultimately answerable for your actions.”

“Ultimately answerable!” This is why you can have many people responsible for things, but only one accountable person. The bottom line is that if more than one person is accountable, then no one is accountable. So when Harry S. Truman said, “The buck stops here,” he was being accountable. This is something truly missing from many of our politicians and CEOs today. The common practice seems to be that the buck stops everywhere else except with me.

Remember the Tylenol® incident a number of years ago? In 1982, seven people died from taking Extra-Strength Tylenol®, which was laced with cyanide. It was Johnson & Johnson’s best-selling product at the time. The marketing community said that the company would never recover. James Burke, the company’s chairman, didn’t make excuses, he didn’t lie, he didn’t blame others, and he didn’t try to cover it up. He took full accountability for what happened even though no one could have foreseen something like this happening. He recalled 31 million bottles of the capsules and offered a free replacement as a start, then he fixed the problem to ensure that it would never happen again. It was costly to the company initially but within two months, Tylenol® was back on top as the best-selling pain reliever.

Accountability and leadership go hand in hand. I do not think that you can be a good leader unless you can be and are accountable for everything that happens under your leadership. As a business owner, you are accountable for everything that happens within your company. You may not be completely responsible for everything, but ultimately, the buck has to stop with you. That’s part of being a leader and accepting the leadership role. Additionally, it must go beyond just accepting accountability. The chairman of J&J could have said that he was ultimately accountable for the Tylenol® incident, and then done nothing about it. That’s not accepting accountability, that’s just saying the words.

So what does accepting accountability mean? Here are five things for you to consider as the leader of your company:

  • Admit when you make a mistake – Guess what, it’s okay, you’re human. We all make mistakes. No one expects you to be perfect.
  • Fix the problem – Reacting to a problem is one thing. Fixing the problem is something else. J&J reacted to the problem by pulling the Tylenol® off the shelves. Fixing the problem was creating tamper-proof bottles.
  • Eliminate excuses, whining, finger pointing – It’s so easy to blame someone else, or to come up with an excuse for why things happen, or to make yourself the victim. Accountability means accepting it for what it is. Did J&J blame the stores for not being more careful? Did they point the finger at manufacturing for not doing a better job? Did they feel sorry for themselves? No, they accepted what happened, stepped up, and moved quickly and aggressively to fix the problem.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate – This means both internally and externally. If a customer is not happy with your product or service, you can simply give them their money back. However, what’s the guarantee that they will continue to do business with you? J&J not only fixed the problem, but they laid out their plans on what they were doing, how they were doing it, and when it was going to be completed, thus instilling confidence in the general public, retaining past customers, and obtaining new customers as well.
  • Seek help where and when needed – As a business owner, you are expected to know your product and/or service but you are not expected to know everything about everything. J&J hired a PR firm that provided them with excellent advice on how to handle the situation and you already know the results. They sought outside help because they knew they needed it!

As the business owner and leader of your company, you are the role model. You can’t expect anyone else to be accountable or responsible unless your behavior emulates what you expect from them. Accountability has consequences. If it didn’t, there would be no accountability. When your employees see you stand up to those consequences, then you have started to build the culture of accountability within your team and within your company.


Ron Feher
Ron Feher
“Making your business better by making your people better,” captures Ron’s commitment to helping people. He possesses a breadth and depth of experience in a variety of disciplines including job benchmarking, staff development, manager mentoring, executive coaching, employee and management training. Ron has over 30 years of experience working in large, mid-size, and small companies in both technical and management roles with responsibilities covering management and technical training, strategic planning, tactical implementation, P&L, budgeting, vendor and relationship management, user design and testing, PMO, and process/project management of corporate-wide. He has worked for large, midsize, and small companies in a myriad of industries including telecommunications (AT&T), computer manufacturing (Gateway), mergers and acquisitions (RSM EquiCo), real estate, IT outsourcing and publishing (Spidell Publishing). He possesses an MBA in Technology Management, certifications in project management, international management and eMarketing. He is a Value Added Advisor with TTI Success Insights™, a certified Behavior and Motivation Analyst and certified Career Direct® consultant. Ron is currently serving as Irvine Chamber of Commerce Leads Group Chair, FUSION Leaders Chair and Board Member along with being actively involved with several task forces and committees. As an outreach to the community, Ron offers a Career Transition Workshop to churches and non-profits and was a founding member of the Career Coaching & Counseling Ministry at Saddleback Church. Ron’s favorite quote is “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll still get run over if you just sit there.” – Will Rogers

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  1. Really good points. To avoid accountability, I’ve seen folks spread it across a group of areas; ares like people, process, and culture. Doing this spreading leads to inaction so people are protected. They don’t get fired when some influential person wants someone as a target on the firing range.

    But besides the obvious issue of problems not getting fix, this spreading protects very unsavory people that should be immediately fired. Instead, this spreading of accountability often helps them get promoted.

  2. Absolutely best read I have had in a while. When I got hired at Barnes & Noble many years again. I did my interview in NY. I was given a book called Responsible Managers. it has been my Bible ever since. Anybody that has ever worked for has read it. I will share this article with my staff and my contacts

    • Larry, thank you for taking the time to read it and to share it. I’ll have to see if I can get a copy of Responsible Managers.

  3. Ron, I LOVE this article. I especially appreciate your passion for finding a clear distinction of what accountability is and is not. Your five things to consider are spot on. As an executive coach, I add one more step. Once an executive has followed these five powerful steps, she MUST find a way to forgive herself. It is important for us to move forward personally as well. Forgiveness includes the five steps, forgiving oneself, and anyone else who was involved. It also means no longer being gripped by the past, rather to always be informed by the past.

    • Excellent points Susan and thank you for posting them. I think we sometimes forget that just because you are an executive it doesn’t mean you stop learning or stop making mistakes. If we are good executives, we forgive others and coach them to help them to grow. We should be doing the same for ourselves.