Accounting for Success


Collective leadership (CL) is a relative newcomer to the leadership narrative although it is now a regular feature of leadership thinking and discussions; the concept has been increasing in its influence over the last two decades with an exponential growth of published academic papers since 2002. In contrast, accountability has been around for much longer and first appears to have been recorded in circa 1260 relating to the need to give an account of one’s conduct. Over time, the term has become a catch-all referring to everything from cost control to professional ethics .

If collective leadership does concern leading in the public interest, then the constituents of public value represent the overall outcome of public-facing collective leadership. ‘Leading in the public interest’ requires strong legitimacy which is a critical measure of accountability. This leads to a most important question:


“To what extent are collective leaders building synergy by demonstrating how they are ‘doing the right things, in the right way, by and for the right people, in the right places and with the right impact”


So, what is the relationship between collective leadership and accountability?

Our view is that collective leadership is a particular leadership style which is a demonstrable outcome of accountable leadership as a result of leaders’ actions within differing contexts. Legitimacy will emerge when leaders collectively engage in accountability’s mechanisms of self-regulatory control, coordination and communication. Shared feedback mechanisms will be essential to ensure that leadership actions and evidence-based impact reflect the needs and priorities of relevant stakeholders at all levels. This is an important component of accountability.

We offer the following further definition:


Accountable leadership is a cybernetic process in which legitimate leaders collectively engage in self-regulatory control and coordination through shared feedback mechanisms which ensure that leadership actions and evidence-based impact reflect the real needs and priorities of relevant stakeholders at all levels.

Accountability &

Collective Leadership and Accountability

The conjoining of the terms ‘accountable’ and ‘leadership’ has not featured significantly in the literature with, perhaps, the exception of one study in educational leadership with the exact title ‘Accountable Leadership’[1]. This study (and others) refers to performance-based accountability (PBA) in public schools which was introduced at the turn of the millennium.

The analysis of the literature has shown that for every 15 published research papers that study ‘collective’ and ‘leadership’, only 1 will bring together ‘accountable’ and ‘leadership’. This gap creates uncertainty surrounding accountability as part of leadership and governance. This is also reflected by the more detailed review of the literature undertaken which is summarised in our Knowledge Hub.
[1] Elmore, R. F. (2005) Accountable Leadership. The Educational Forum, 69(2), 134-142

Components of Accountable Leadership

Our research and literature review emphasises that being both legitimate and accountable are prerequisites for open debate and reform.  Traditionally,
accountability is defined as

“the legal obligation to respect the legitimate interests of others affected by decisions, programs, and interventions. This has usually meant that agencies obey those in theline of authority above them” (Considine, 2002).


In socio-political debating, the public sphere is a space for nation-based and post national political debate in which activist groups seek political legitimacy and where political change can be assessed. For this to work, leadership needs to encourage the creation of social capital, defined as “the interpersonal networks and common civic values which influence the infrastructure and economy of a particular society” .

Accountability includes a wide range of stakeholders who will often have competing values and objectives which will require mediation [Cross refer to Quomodo]. We need to explore the nature and extent of these networks and values if we are to determine who is accountable and for what. Different forms of social capital exist. This was broadly contrasted in the classic work of Robert Putnam who contrasted both bonding and bridging social capital, the former constituting “a kind of sociological superglue” whereas the later provides “a sociological WD40” .

At the level of institutional leadership and accountability, social capital also applies and becomes an influencing factor (a mediator) for institutions and their networks. Examples emerged in the literature review. One was a community health business model that engages partners in all sectors to catalyse a collective, multisectoral response to social and economic challenges . At both socio-political and institutional levels, the challenges will often be associated with population challenges which will often represent a wicked problem. With wicked problems improvement often requires synergy and action across transdisciplinary and through multisectoral networks targeting multiple social determinants.

If accountable leadership is to be perceived as legitimate, it should also take into account both individual and institutional bias – whether conscious or unconscious. Bias often emerges and those who are adversely affected often struggle to hold the institution accountable for the challenges that they face in socially determined contexts. Two examples are race , and workplace bullying/lateral violence .

Our review has identified a highly important component of accountability, but which was considered to be missing within the leadership of teams, that of mutual accountability in which members of successful teams pitch in and become accountable with and to their teammates .

These are important aspects to consider within the context of a collective leadership conceptual framework and an operational model which we briefly introduce in the next session. The next chapter specifically addresses the operational collective leadership model.

If you wish to read more about the research and the systematic literature review, register for the Knowledge Hub.

Looking at Legitimacy

Balancing Legitimacy

It has recently been argued that legitimacy leads to accountability , a point that we agree with. In turn, accountability in leadership relies on justification. The technical definition of legitimacy is multi-faceted, including the legal right to govern, conformity to the law and justifiability (of leaders’ actions) . The practical application of legitimacy is that the actions of leaders will be positively perceived by those led who judge leaders’ activities as being in theirs’ and the wider public interest. In public facing leadership, for example, members of society will make their own assessments. But how do leaders assure the public through the accountability of their leadership? Do they accept responsibility, and are they open and answerable for not only what they achieve but also why and how and with what impact?

If collective leadership is about synergy, then accountability represents a cybernetic method of leadership, which is a transdisciplinary, multisectoral approach for exploring both regulatory and purposive (goal-directed) systems. It evaluates the what, the when, the how, the where and by whom in relation to the impact on leaderships’ why? questions. Most important, it also addresses the ‘with what impact?’ outcome.


Considine, M (2002) The End of the Line? Accountable Governance in the Age of Networks, Partnerships, and Joined-up Services in Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions, Vol.15, No.1, January.

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