Understanding Accountability

Counting what Counts

Being accountable is a collective leadership matter

We all have our views on what accountability means and how it should be practised. Each view should be respected but, differing views on the meaning of accountability, are not unusual and can lead to difficulties in relation to a lack of direction and poor performance.

The same old things keep happening time and time again …

Whilst it is predictable, the patterns just keep repeating. The senior bosses complain about being overloaded, the shop floor workers or those who deliver the services protest that no one is listening and say that they are continually being asked to do the impossible. Middle leaders grumble about being ‘stuck in the middle trying to keep the ‘top bosses’ happy as well as their line reports. Meanwhile, consumers are feeling neglected…

Does this sound familiar?

Leadership without accountability = a Leadership Deficit

A leadership deficit is generally considered to be the gap between current levels of skills and those which are needed. The introductory scenario highlights patterns of inaction, misguided management and poor motivation that happen with alarming regularity. The predictable response to this is one in which we all know things are wrong but where we all assume that it is someone else’s job to put it right. In the meantime, we all wait around waiting for the fixers to fix it and continue to get disheartened, demotivated and disengaged. Ultimately, people leave the team or the organisation and, in their place, comes another person who eventually feels the same. The focus is on the transaction rather than transformation leading to staff dissatisfaction and lack of staff retention.

What can we do about this?

The essence of a team is shared commitment. Without it, groups perform as individuals; with it, they become a powerful unit of collective performance.

Leadership is a collective, but the tendency is to bring individual leaders together within a chain of command that stifles innovation and creativity. Therefore, we end up with the same old patterns that just keep repeating. At best, everyone does their job but without direction; at worst, front-liners go around doing their own thing. Trying to get a sense of order from chaos is like herding cats; impossible to control. In either case, no one is accountable.

One of the telling signs of a leadership deficit is that there is no direction. Often, there is a lack of trust between different levels of leadership and little trust within teams. If trust existed, leaders would feel responsible for taking this up with their line managers/senior leaders.

Understanding collective leadership as the key to unlocking evidence-based excellence

The moral of the story is that leadership without accountability equals a ‘Leadership Deficit’. It is our responsibility to put this right. Not yours. Not mine. It is our collective responsibility. If we do not deal with this, morale will continue to decline, consumers will continue to get dissatisfied, and objectives will not be fulfilled. In sum, we will fail our consumers.


</p> <h3>Legitimate, collective and accountable leadership: how do these work together?</h3> <p>

Let’s take as our starting point our understanding of the collective nature of leadership. It’s about working together, encouraging each other to collaborate, interact, and cooperate within networks towards a shared mission and vision. This style of leadership will increase trust, confidence, and acceptability than more traditional styles.

The starting point for accountable leadership is less straightforward but it’s future is clear. Leadership studies in public-facing services such as education[i] and healthcare[ii] have shown that accountability has changed the demands on leaders.   If collective leadership reflects doing the right things (shared goals), for the right reasons (consumer-centred), then accountability represents doing things right (to standards) by the right people (matching skills and experience to aims) and in the right places (where there is the greatest need). Leadership crosses disciplinary boundaries in achieving goals as does accountability in evaluating the impact of the practice.  The literature review has identified an essential component of accountability that was missing within the leadership of teams, that of mutual accountability:

[i] Elmore, R. F. (2005) Accountable Leadership. The Educational Forum, 69(2), 134-142.

[ii] Smith, P., Anell, A., Busse, R., Crivelli, L., Healy, J., Lindahl, A., Westert, G. & Kene, T. (2012) Leadership and governance in seven developed health systems. Health policy, 106 1, 37-49.

The accountability of leadership relies on the justification of actions, suggesting that leadership leads to acceptability and, it is argued, acceptability leads to (legitimate) accountability[i].  This justifies the leadership actions taken.  Shared feedback is essential to ensure that leadership actions and evidence-based impact reflect the needs and priorities of relevant stakeholders at all levels.  We need to explore who is accountable and for what..

[i] Galoppin, L. (2016) Legitimacy leads to Accountability [Online]. Meerbeek (Kortenberg). Available: http://www.reply-mc.com/2016/09/19/legitimacy/ [Accessed April 8th 2021].

AuthenticityThe connection between accountability and collective leadership in transforming change is clear. The three dimensions (or variables) of accountability (see the right hand text) – responsibility, openness, and answerability – predict the perception of authentic leadership (Frederick et al., 2016).



Frederick, H. R., Wood, J. a. A., West, G. R. B. & Winston, B. E. (2016) The Effect of the Accountability Variables of Responsibility, Openness, and Answerability on Authentic Leadership. Journal of Research on Christian Education, 25(3), 302-316.

Understanding Accountability

Having explored the critical components that work together in encouraging accountability, we now focus on an understanding as to how different meanings of accountability are held and the impact of this. You have the option to explore how to understand accountability by following the 30 minute e-learning activity below.

When you have finished the e-activity, read the brief summary in the aside narrative (to the right) and then return to the reflective questions below.

Reflect on Accountability Imperatives
(Critical Components)

What do you see as important components for an Accountability Framework?.

  • how important is it to influence action on the part of a leader?
  • Who are the main stakeholders for accountability and what are their interests?
  • What are the essential activities that leaders need to take in being accountable?
  • Is collective accountability more important than individual accountability?
  • What is the role of responsibility within accountability mechanisms?

Building an Accountability Imperative Framework (AIF) to avoid a Leadership Deficit

The need to avoid a leadership deficit is paramount. This is not a deficit of individual leadership (which is often associated with personal failings or misgivings such as incompetence, lack of confidence or pure laziness) but a lack of leadership that results in institutional, organisational or team dysfunction. The focus is the ‘ship’ of ‘leadership’.

Building on the foundations of an accountability framework described in aside comments to the right, we need to achieve a balance between the meaning of imperative in just the same way as we balance the meaning of accountability. An imperative describes a mechanism that is overbearing and domineering as well as crucial and vital. In literal terms1 it is, therefore, something that denotes an urgent requirement, necessity, or obligation representing a mechanism to influence the introduction of something which is necessary; in our case, this is accountability. The avoidance of the negative association of the imperative is to create this through mutual accountability. Remember, good leaders will want to be accountable.


[1] Imperative, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2021. Web. 5 July 2021

What is Accountability?

A good question to ask but one that is difficult to answer!

The World Health Organisation (WHO), tell us that ‘accountability is the way in which we point health systems towards public interest goals. The public interest will impact many stakeholders. The WHO accountability framework includes many stakeholders, as figure 1 illustrates, and they will often have values and objectives which compete for attention. This reflects how accountability has become a catch-all referring to everything from cost control to professional ethics1.


Accountability Stakeholders
Figure 1: Accountability Framework, adapted from the World Health Organisation

A study in seven developed health systems highlighted performance monitoring as the most prominent.  The study said that accountability should shine a light on the broader leadership and governance of health systems. Instead, it was dominated by key performance indicators. The WHO tends to focus more on transactional rather than transformational measures. We have adapted this in figure 1 above,  to show how satisfying stakeholders rely on achieving social outcomes and to show a distinction between accountabilities for both performance AND leadership.

How should Accountability work?

Foundation for Accountability
Figure 2: Foundation for Accountability

Beliefs and norms are the seeds of culture.  Accountability and leadership will be perceived as legitimate through debate as well as practice.  If debate leads to legitimacy then practice leads to authenticity which itself is a measure as to how well the leadership is accepted by those who are led and those who are impacted by the leadership.  Both can only be assessed through effective governance. The relationship between leadership and governance is illustrated in figure 2 by means of legitimacy.  Accountability represents the alignment of debate (what we say we do) and practice (what we actually do).  If accountability is an outcome of leadership then legitimacy is the outcome of accountability.

Openness, responsibility and answerability

In public leadership – as we have argued elsewhere – a public interest perspective is at the core of aspiration and achievement with outcomes reflected by the creation and demonstration of public value.  Our foundation for accountability represents the overall aim of serving the public interest. We argue that there are three dimensions (or variables) of accountability – responsibility, openness, and answerability.

Although accountability and responsibility are closely aligned, they are different. Team leaders and members may be responsible for taking action, but accountability is not about telling people what to do or when to do it. Accountability is the highest level of responsibility, but it is possible (and necessary) to assign responsibility to others through the delegation of tasks while retaining accountability. This is where leadership enters the centre stage and why leadership and accountability should be practised collectively.

Figure 3: Responsibility, answerability and openness as critical components of an accountability framework


In summary

Differences exist between the concepts of collective and accountable leadership distinguishing practice from performance. Alignment between the two, however, is critical and consistent with the need to develop the perceived legitimacy of those who are led. Combining a collective leadership style with an accountability imperative framework makes sense in encouraging shared action, mutual accountability, and sustaining acceptability.

Leadership without accountability risks a leadership deficit. People need to know who is accountable for what and by when. Shared commitments lead to collective performance through transformational leadership styles focused on value creation rather than transactional leaders who single-mindedly focused on sanction and reward-based targets for performance and work tasks.
[1] Dowse, E. (n.d.) Accounting for Accountability. Available from: https://www.inifac.org/accounting-for-accountability/ [Accessed 11th April 2021].

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