The Accountability Test

Imagine one of your trusted employees told you they didn’t have time to master a key skill. They believed there were too many other important tasks and priorities even though this skill has proven to be essential to excelling in their role. They felt very comfortable with their existing skill set and don’t see the need to expand it. How would you respond?

I’m sure like most leaders you would have an accountability chat with this individual. You would point out that not having time for something this important is simply just an excuse. Priorities can be reviewed, tasks can be delegated, and the long-term benefit of the new skill will make this all worthwhile. You might even add that while the organization will benefit from the new skill, he/she would also benefit personally – making their job easier, more fulfilling, and opening up new career possibilities. In the end, you’d challenge them to get their priorities straight, and accept the challenge of personal development.

Are We As Leaders Modelling Accountable Behavior?

It’s frustrating when employees are not as accountable as a leader would like. However, most leaders are not modelling the level of accountability they expect from their employees. Most would fail the very same accountability test outlined above; that of growing skill sets that make us more effective leaders. Let me explain.

According to Daniel Goleman, coaching is one of six essential leadership styles and is proven to have a markedly positive impact on performance, culture, and profitability. When used in conjunction with other leadership styles it results in highly effective leadership and extraordinary results (see HBR article – “Leadership That Gets Results”). Yet based on his research, the coaching style is the least used leadership style. How can this be? What would cause leaders to neglect such a powerful leadership style?

Goleman wrote, “Many leaders told us they don’t have the time in this high-pressure economy for the slow and tedious work of teaching people and helping them to grow.”

Michael Stanier, in his recent book “The Coaching Habit”, believes this situation is only getting worse. Part of this trend is due to learning avoidance on the part of leaders (see the accountability test above), and some of the fault lies in poor training, too much theory, and not enough practical advice.

In my experience, both personally and professionally, leaders tend to rely on the styles and skills that worked for them in the past. The choice to stay with the familiar and not expand the leadership repertoire is quite common. This attitude is reinforced by ineffective training programs, as well as the challenge of putting theory into practice. However, even the most seasoned leader can always learn new approaches to successfully overcome challenges and opportunities.

Coaching as a Leadership Style

Leaders often assume that to be authentic they should adopt a leadership style aligned with their personality. Yet research shows the most effective leaders adopt the leadership style best suited to a given situation. This flexibility is a powerful tool in a leader’s kit and makes for maximum effectiveness. According to Goleman, “Leaders who have mastered four or more – especially the authoritative, democratic, affiliative, and coaching styles – have the best climate and business performance.” This requires a fairly evolved level of emotional intelligence in order to understand what style a given situation requires, and what style you’re currently deploying.

Just mastering one or two styles is not very effective leadership. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.

New Habits

In our execution excellence engagements with hundreds of business owners and leaders, we witness the initial struggle to discard old habits and develop new ones. In their quest to master the disciplines of execution, the leaders we advise work very hard to establish execution-oriented leadership skills and work habits. As they progress we see the pride, confidence, and extraordinary results these new habits produce.  Mastering a crucial new leadership style such as coaching is no different than developing any other worthwhile habit.

As Michael Stanier explains in his book, he and his team at Box of Crayons have experienced great results when coaching is approached in the right way;

  • Any leader can build a coaching habit, as long as they understand the practical and proven mechanics of this approach.
  • Coaching itself is simple; you can coach someone in as little as 10 minutes.
  • Coaching others also helps you as a leader, and positions you to use your time more effectively.

The Payoff

Any new skill or technique requires an initial investment of time and attention. If the skill is valuable enough, is mastered, and used with appropriate frequency, the return on investment can be impressive. In the case of a coaching approach to leadership several long-term benefits come to mind;

  • Unlock the full potential of your employees, and increase their capacity and capability to contribute to the results of the organization.
  • Free up your valuable time by having employees less dependent upon you for direction and decisions.
  • Reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed when your employees line up looking for your direction on all manner of tasks.
  • Renew your focus on strategic priorities as employees learn to be more independent and less demanding of you.
  • Establish a more proactive stance on the part of the entire team resulting in more confidence, more trust, more effective execution, and better results.


If you are ready to accept this accountability challenge I recommend three steps;

  1. Read Michael Staniers’ book “The Coaching Habit”. It is very well written, and full of practical advice for a leader developing this new habit. He also references lots of additional resources.
  2. Read Daniel Golemans’ HBR article, “Leadership That Gets Results”. This will provide the background you need to consider the various leadership styles you should have in your toolkit.
  3. Commit, and hold yourself accountable for developing this new habit. Have an action plan, and keep track of your successes and challenges. Better yet, do this with a peer and be each other’s accountability buddy. You can share your experiences and learning to mutual advantage.

If we expect our employees to be adaptive, and passionate learners, we as leaders must model the way. Not only will we set the standard for accountability in our organizations, we will become significantly more effective leaders.