Late in the summer of 1999, I accepted my first full-time job after graduate school as a Presidential Management Intern (PMI) at the U.S. Department of State. The PMI Program – soon thereafter renamed Presidential Management Fellows (PMF), a fortunate “brand refresh” after a certain White House internship around that time – is a two-year experience designed to groom future federal managers.
One of the PMF Program’s more compelling features is the opportunity to perform rotational assignments at other departments, Congressional offices, and non-governmental organizations. During my time at State, I was fortunate to avail myself of three such rotations, including a four-month detail to the U.S. Department of Defense.
While at the Pentagon, I was assigned to the NATO and Western European policy division of the strategy, plans, and policy (J5) directorate of The Joint Staff, an ideal place for a longtime student of European political, economic, and military affairs. As was often the case with PMFs on assignment, I managed a portfolio of substantive work that normally would have been assigned to someone considerably senior to my lowly GS-9 rank. I served side-by-side as an action officer with majors and colonels and sometimes found myself briefing the one-star Army general who led our division (which is to say, my boss’ boss’ boss). On one occasion, I lead a bilateral session with our French counterparts at the general officer level. Not bad duty for a 25-year-old!
Near the conclusion of the detail I received a routine assignment to prepare a one-page briefing paper. Unfortunately, I had the PMI rotation version of senioritis and my mind was already back across the river at Foggy Bottom. In addition, the project was on a topic about which I wasn’t especially knowledgeable or interested. (This is a charitable way of saying I knew next to nothing about it, and with a week to go on the job, had no discernible interest in learning.)
There was no doubt, however, that the project was assigned to me and its deadline would occur before I left. So I did what many kids barely out of grad school would do and pulled from my posterior a loosely crafted memo with dubious policy recommendations. This lack of accountability in preparing my work product did not go unnoticed by my supervisor, who happened also to be an Army Reserve colonel. And while he normally offered generous assessments of my performance, on that particular day he provided some rather colorful corrective feedback.
All of us, at some point in our lives, try to shirk responsibility for something we should (or shouldn’t) have done or for failing to fulfill an obligation to the best of our ability. To do so is entirely human. But as a leader, one’s objective should be to reduce the incidences of such slips, and accordingly, the essential – if obvious – question to ask oneself is:
Am I exhibiting accountability for my actions?
Yesterday we celebrated the national holiday officially known as Washington’s Birthday. George Washington, in addition to being revered for the military and civilian leadership roles he played in founding our republic, is the protagonist in a well-known, albeit apocryphal, tale in which accountability (along with honesty) is the object lesson. Whether or not he, as a young boy, actually chopped down that cherry tree and needed to own up to it with his father is immaterial. The moral of the story, inculcated upon generations of American school children, is simple: a leader takes responsibility for his or her actions.
So, what steps can we take to evaluate our own accountability – and, if needed, shore up this essential leadership quality? Here are three thoughts:
1. Acknowledge agency.
“I am the master of my fate.” —William Ernest Henley, from the closing lines of his poem, “Invictus”
An initial step toward accountability is accepting that each able person can and should act on his or her own behalf – that is, to exhibit agency. It is ironic that modern society seems to be simultaneously emphasizing all sorts of newly discovered individual rights while insisting that obligations long considered personal are someone else’s responsibility. It seems one of the most important leadership concepts we can underscore today is agency, which basically says, “I am in charge of my life, the decisions I make, and the outcomes they yield.”
2. Avoid assigning blame to others.
“Either I am responsible for the outcome, or I am a victim.” —Paul Martinelli
A second step in this process that flows logically from the first is not to blame others when things go sideways. Before you dismiss this out of hand, realize it happens a lot more than you may think. How often are you in a conversation that takes an ugly turn or on the road when someone cuts you off – and your immediate instinct is to point the finger? A dash of self-awareness may quickly reveal you uttered something inelegant that turned the conversation on its ear. A moment of introspection may expose that while you were fiddling with your phone, breakfast sandwich, or kids in the back seat, you were also driving quite inattentively to those around you.
When we move directly to blaming someone else rather than looking in the mirror, we not only may be falsely accusing another but making ourselves into a victim. And in that latter sense, we’re missing an important opportunity for self-improvement – or as one of my uncles says in a phrase that perfectly captures this concept: “As long as it’s your fault, I can’t change.”
3. Accept that individual actions aggregate.
“England expects that every man will do his duty.” —Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1805, prior to the Battle of Trafalgar
This leads naturally to the idea that accountability, although often viewed through an individual prism, has corporate implications. What happens to a company, organization, or even society in which accountability – fostered one person at a time – is eschewed? Each of us has an obligation to do our part and to make a unique contribution to the whole. As Paul points out in I Corinthians 12:14, “the body is not made up of one part but of many.” One of the best stories I have found that captures the intersection of individual accountability and civic responsibility appears in The Moral Compass, a compendium of stories published by Dr. William J. Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education. If you have a few moments, give it a read. Otherwise, the CliffsNotesversion is: “Nothing good can come to a nation whose people complain and expect others to fix their problems for them.”
So, what happened to our young PMI at the Pentagon back in the year 2000? Well, my experience reinforced the importance of being accountable for one’s work, words, and other actions. It also provided the more immediate – and abiding – lesson that an action officer should write the memo well the first time or he’ll end up writing it again!
Today’s post is the third of a seven-part series on the characteristics of a Grindstone-SHARPENed leader. You can locate other Our Weekly Grind posts here. If you find our content compelling, edifying, or stimulating (or perhaps all three!), please sign up for our email list, which includes access to Saturday Sharpening, a free, weekly compendium of curated leadership links offered exclusively to subscribers.