Six years ago, I started a journey to promote a simple idea that I was confident would help leaders everywhere.
In my work with leaders in Canada and the United States, I found that many organizations had no foundational philosophy for their leaders. They wanted to do well and drive results for their organizations while building confidence and capacity in the people they were leading. And yet, so many were struggling.
It’s why in 2013 I wrote The Leadership Contract, my guide to help leaders and their organizations develop greater accountability. This year, I’m happy to say that we’ve just released the third edition of The Leadership Contract, along with The Leadership Contract Field Guide, to help leaders find true accountability and fulfill their obligations.
The idea behind The Leadership Contract is pretty simple: I realized there was something missing from the way most of us approached leadership. Too many leaders were in it for themselves, more focused on the expense account and corner office than they were on driving results or cultivating talent. Others were well meaning when they started but lost their passion for their roles and settled, becoming mediocre at best.
And then there were those who really did not have the capacity to lead but who were afraid to admit it and step down.
The ideas in The Leadership Contract immediately resonated, but I knew I wanted to research this issue more deeply. The book struck a chord with leaders, and we needed to understand why. We partnered with HR People + Strategy (HRPS), a premier network of HR executives, to conduct a survey of North American HR professionals. In this first study, we talked to more than 250 senior HRPS members. The results were both dramatic and insightful.
In short, nearly three-quarters of our respondents (72%) believed that leadership accountability was a critical business issue. However, only 37% were satisfied with the level of accountability their leaders demonstrated. These findings validated what we were seeing in our consulting work with our clients.
We decided to find out if this leadership accountability gap was a problem elsewhere in the world. Our research expanded its reach to more HR professionals in North America as well as in South America, Europe and Asia. I was curious to see whether the same patterns would emerge.
The respondents of our global survey consisted of C-Suite leaders (33%), chiefs of human resources (33%) and the rest comprised of senior level leaders. We had representation from over 21 industries and sectors. We augmented this research by undertaking detailed consultation with nearly 900 of our clients at live events held in 33 cities, where attendees completed a short-form survey. A select group of these clients also agreed to do one-on-one interviews.
After all that research, we had comprehensive results. And they were nothing short of dramatic.
Overall, 71% of the global respondents believed that leadership accountability is a critical business issue in their organizations. Only 31% of them were satisfied with the degree of accountability their leaders demonstrated.
It confirmed to us, yet again, that the leadership accountability gap is a critical business challenge that is global in nature and knows no borders.
The results showed that only about half of the companies we surveyed set clear expectations. It was surprising to see how few companies admitted to not being deliberate or explicit in setting expectations for their leaders.
The survey respondents also believe that less than half of their leaders are fully committed to their roles. We heard during the customer forums that many leaders are committed to driving business results or to the technical aspects of their roles. Fewer leaders, however, are fully committed to all of the duties included in their roles—managing people, inspiring teams, addressing performance issues and building culture.
An extremely concerning finding was that only 27% of companies believe they have a strong leadership culture. Our customers were also startled by this finding.
We heard over and over again the same theme—having a strong leadership culture is critical for success in today’s world. There was also widespread agreement that if a company has a weak leadership culture, then this creates risk. The organization will not be able to effectively drive change, achieve long-term sustainable success or attract the best talent.
Equally concerning was our finding regarding the ability of organizations to have the courage to address mediocrity among their leaders. Our customers acknowledged that in most cases they know exactly which leaders are the most unaccountable, but they typically do not deal with them in a proactive manner. This, in turn, breeds more mediocrity and lack of accountability. Many just hope that with more training and development, leaders will eventually improve their performance, even though that rarely is the case.
We also explored the degree of satisfaction in which leaders at three levels—executives, mid-level and front-line—demonstrate strong leadership accountability.
While the data acknowledged greater satisfaction with executive-level leaders, it still is not an overwhelming endorsement. Taken collectively, these findings suggest there is much work ahead for organizations to drive strong leadership accountability consistently at all levels.
The good news is that our work with leaders and organizations all over the world is boosting accountability and thereby producing better overall leadership outcomes.
In The Leadership Contract, we provide a road map for leaders to step up and demonstrate strong accountability at a personal level—and they can start by committing to the leadership contract, made up of what we refer to as four “terms.” Truly accountable leaders deliberately put these terms into action:
- Accountable leaders must make the deliberate decision to lead. They need to consciously commit to being truly accountable. They must have high expectations for their personal performance and that of those they lead.
- Accountable leaders must be clear on their core obligations. They must bring a “one-company” perspective to their role and put what’s best for the organization ahead of their personal self-interest. They must commit every day to making a meaningful and impactful difference to their customers, stakeholders and employees.
- Accountable leaders must demonstrate resolve to tackle hard work. Simply put, they don’t wimp out. Leadership is not for the faint of heart, and leaders must have the courage to tackle the difficult issues that arise in the course of leading. They understand if they avoid the hard work, they become weak. Accountable leaders have resilience, resolve and determination.
- Accountable leaders connect to build relationships and a sense of community. They focus on the quality of relationships. They network internally to foster connections that build high levels of trust and mutual support. This, in turn, drives greater collaboration, innovation and speed of execution.
As global leaders continue to face unprecedented change and disruption in their environments, it’s clear that they need to be stronger than ever before. That is true whether they are a leading a country or company.
Yet at a time when we need our leaders to be at their strongest, it’s clear that many are falling significantly short of their obligations. Our global research reveals that at the heart of the challenge is a significant leadership accountability gap.
The solution is to understand how leaders and their organizations can better step up and demonstrate strong accountability at a personal and collective level.