You’re doing an evaluation for one of your direct reports. She’s nervous, but you’re not. You’re focused and crisp. You have the data, the outcomes and the numbers on your sheets, and because you’re smart, strong and capable young leader, you’re going to hold her accountable. It’s your job.

Holding people accountable is a banner phrase for tough, goal-oriented rising leaders. Leaders are hired on that promise, evaluated on that promise, feel good if they fulfill that promise. But it’s only part — perhaps the smaller part — of a three-part equation. More importantly, it certainly cannot stand on its own to build a thriving culture where leaders unleash, and not just control talent.

The problem isn’t checking the numbers. That’s an essential part of a high-performance organization. However, a computer can tell you whether the numbers are hit. Anyone can look backward and check boxes to see if things got done or not. This kind of activity takes discipline and it is an important part of a leaders’ foundation. But is has to be one piece, a part, not a cornerstone.

The next part is also looking backward, but it’s essential. There needs to be a much more nuanced view of what really happened than just completion of a set of tasks and numbers. That is: What was accomplished and how did they get there? Did people do a lot but accomplish a little? There is often a large gap between doing and accomplishing. You need to be close enough to their work to understand — beyond the numbers — the deeper effect of the accomplishment, not just the superficial data.

Along with looking at what really got done, we need to look at what did it take to get the work done? Was the solution a short-term strategy that will set us up for bigger problems in the mid or long term? Did it enhance our partner departments or external organizations, or did it burn them? Most importantly, what toll did it take on the staff? Did this “success” leave a wake of shattered people, disillusioned former stars, or de-energized, burned out strong performers that will limit their willingness to stay engaged … or even stay in the organization. Think back to Jim Collins’ Level 5 Leadership. It was humility and drive, not dominance, which proved successful.

These are reasonable tools, but to build long-term staff engagement we need to reframe the emphasis in our evaluations from looking backward to building forward. Then the major focus of the leaders’ work is less centered on holding people accountable and constantly framed on helping them succeed.

Leaders need to be primarily responsible for that success, growth and development. Keeping development and evaluation completely separate eliminates scores of opportunities for clarity, candor and course correction.

Organizations need to train and evaluate leaders on how to serve, rather than to rule. This requires the organization’s goals and the staff’s well-being be recognized as inextricably connected when aiming for anything beyond mediocrity or short-term wins.

This is not easy to pull off. But even in the biggest organizations, it has been done. Jeff Immelt led General Electric, an organization of more than 300,000, away from a system that was externally judged as “rank and yank” — forced ranking of staff with a significant number of the bottom moved out of the organization — to a system with an app at its core, “PD@GE,” Performance Development at GE.

Of course, there still needs to be candor and discipline, but at its core, evaluation should focus on how to help the staff succeed versus sorting out who needs to be deleted. At no point is there a promise that all issues will be fixed, or that all staff will have permanent jobs. But it does set the tone that leadership is developing, assisting and providing a pathway for employees to be successful, not just looking for a hole in their armor, or rules they may have skirted.

As an organization or as individual, we need to accomplish what we commit to. The aforementioned steps are by no means a recipe for loose, sloppy leadership. But it changes the tone. The questions we need to teach leaders to ask are less about, what are your numbers for the past week or months, and more about, what barriers kept you from being more successful? Do you have the right tools? What would it look like to help you be more successful? This is not about allowing under-performance, it’s about inspiring and fostering superior performance.

It is not a badge of honor or a sign of a great leader if all you do is beat your staff or partners into submission, and hold them accountable for a short-term goal. Long-term superior performance will be achieved by training our leaders to be responsible for the staff, not to rule the staff.

Holding staff accountable is looking backward. Being responsible for their success is looking forward. Superior performance will require a balance of the two.

Dr. Jeff Thompson is the author of “Lead True: Live Your Values, Build Your People, Inspire Your Community.” He is CEO emeritus and executive advisor for Gundersen Healthy System. Comment below or email



  1. The problem with many authors of leadership writings is that they don’t have any real experience with being leaders themselves. Soft, administrative jobs does not a leader make!

  2. The concept of accountability is at the heart of the issue. Your headline is somewhat, in my opinion, misleading. You are correct, it is not the manager who has to have the ‘accountability’ for the results of the direct report. It is the direct report who has to have the ownership and accountability for their own commitments.

    However, to make that work feed forward will be a positive move in the correct direction, The boss has to, at the start of the year, set out positive and negative consequences. The consequences have to be meaningful for the direct report.

    The manager can not act like a parent with threats they never execute on. In the end the manager who does not deliver on her or his commitments will be out of a job. So things have to be two-way. Not so simple.

  3. I agree with David C. Your headline is a bit misleading. Holding yourself or someone accountable does not imply the “steps to get there” are not part of the accountability. By definition, it is “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions” Indeed it is about the past but it is also about the “how”. At a former company of mine, we worked to align our culture, processes and performance based systems on the values and performance – “the how and the what” (measured).
    Good insights and great way to start a conversation for the leaders that need to understand this concept.
    Thank you.

  4. At one glance, the topic is misleading. You can delegate responsibility, but not accountability. When you delegate people tasks responsibilities, they are accountable for the results. You can’t escape your accountable because you are suppose to “ensure” the results. Hence, you should have a deep interest over your subordinates success or failure. the problem is far too many can’t distinguish the concept of responsibility from accountability.

  5. I don’t think the author is calling us to ignore actual accountability in an organization. Rather, I think he is calling us to ALSO consider the methods in which the tasks/projects/goals were achieved. If you reach your goals and were accountable on this project – but leave organizational or relational debris in your wake – how successful were you really in the long run?

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