Many who enter management are ready and willing to accept the benefits of their positions, but not all are readily accepting the full responsibilities of leadership.” – C.R. McConnell

In his research paper, C.R. McConnel laments the modus operandi of most of today’s leaders. Frequently, modern leadership seems self-serving, with the needs and desires of the leaders taking precedence over the needs of the followers – and even the needs of the clients or customers.

Authentic leadership, he insists, should primarily benefit the followers rather than the leader.

John Baldoni, author of MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership, echoes these cries. He says that “…sadly, too few executives are holding themselves accountable. This is not only bad for the future of our economy. It sets a poor example to younger managers and those about to become managers.”

Some authors use the terms ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’ as synonyms. However, research conducted by Jack Zenger suggests these two concepts as quite different in mindset.

Zenger is the author and co-author of 13 books on exceptional leadership, including How To Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success by Magnifying Your Strengths.

Being an accountable leader, Zenger explains, means that the leader is answerable and willing to accept the outcomes or results of a project or activity. But responsibility goes much further. It is the mindset that says I am the person who must make this happen; the buck stops with me and me alone.

The responsible leader exhibits this behaviour in multiple directions. It influences how the leader behaves with subordinates but is equally strong in the relationship with an immediate supervisor and with other departments in the business. The leaders’ sense of responsibility encompasses an overall set of values and attitudes.

Amongst his team, the leader demonstrates the quality of responsible behaviour through a willingness to take charge and not sidestep decisions. Responsibility towards his team means the leader stays on top of problems and doesn’t assume that someone else will step in to resolve it.

At the same time, the leader safeguards his team and buffers them from pressures that come from above, while fending off unreasonable demands from others.

The responsible leader takes the roles of coaching and developing upcoming leaders very seriously. He informs those at higher levels of exceptional performance as well as needed resources.

The responsible leader is the one who places employees well above self in importance, who models appropriate behaviour for employees, and functions as a facilitator in the team’s continuing efforts to achieve success.

Zenger says that no matter your characteristics or achievements, “your effectiveness is ultimately defined by the results your team produces.” The responsible manager ensures the group’s success and leads the unit through troubled waters onto (psychologically) safe pastures.

In fact, a study conducted by associate professor of management Tobias Fredberg has found that high-ambition CEOs take personal responsibility when things go wrong. Yet, they do not hesitate to share the credit with their teams when things go right.

Additionally, the high-ambition leader invites (positive) criticism for his mistakes. He pro-actively takes the first steps to fix problems and make amends with those who have been wronged.

Admitting when you’re wrong builds trust and shows integrity, says Chris McCloskey from Dale Carnegie Training. Chris cautions leaders to realise that if they’ve made a mistake, others have probably noticed it. She adds that “leaders who then fail to admit they were wrong, leave employees feeling as though their leaders consider being right more important than being honest.”

Taking responsibility demonstrates that leaders value integrity over the easier paths of laying blame or hoping their mistake won’t be exposed.

Admitting when you’re wrong also shows you’re aware of, and therefore in a position to learn from, your mistakes. This can build further confidence in your leadership.

Fredberg says that admitting mistakes is a characteristic of high-ambition CEOs. This behaviour then initiates a top-down multiplier effect for accountability. The companies they work for exemplify elements of both strong collective leadership and individual leadership. Both — when used in the right situations — are essential for creating economic as well as social value.

Fredberg explains that a leader’s individual focus is what allows the collective enterprise to flourish. This personal focus involves adopting an overall attitude of responsibility.

Although a responsible attitude manifests itself in behaviour, “an attitude of responsibility is also expressed in many small ways,” says Zenger. The behaviour is subtle and nuanced, Zenger explains, but it is also significant and palpable.

It begins with the leader’s intuitive connection with the company. The leader feels personal pride when the organisation succeeds and is pained during challenging periods. The leader’s personal goals and the company’s strategic goals are aligned.

Responsible behaviour includes going over and above; taking actions for which there is no immediate reward, but that is in the organisation’s best interests.

Responsibility is not just accepting blame when something goes wrong; it is about delivering on a commitment and sharing in the joy of success. Deloitte describes responsibility as a feeling of contribution and personal connection to outcomes, rather than completion of a set of tasks.

When individuals feel this sense of personal involvement, they can achieve higher performance outcomes for their teams. When teams experience this, they deliver on a commitment to each other. When leaders grasp this, they create momentum for shared accountability which cascades from the top. High performance throughout the enterprise is the result.


Chris McCloskey, 2016. The Value of Acknowledging Your Mistakes. Association For Talent Development.

Jack Zenger, 2015. Taking Responsibility Is The Highest Mark Of Great Leaders. Forbes.

John Baldoni, 2008. Failure to Accept Responsibility is a Failure to Lead. Harvard Business Review.

McConnell, C.R., 1998. Mixed motivations: the leadership contradiction.

Tobias Fredberg, 2011. Why Good Leaders Pass the Credit and Take the Blame. Harvard Business Review.

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