From Holding People Accountable to Modeling Accountability and Holding People Able - Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today - Susan Scott

Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today - Susan Scott (2009)

Fierce Practice #3. From Holding People Accountable to Modeling Accountability and Holding People Able

It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope.


Out there in the real world, freedom means you have to admit authorship, even when your story turns out to be a stinker.


Irecall hearing the true story of a pilot who landed just short of the runway in San Francisco. Luckily, no one was seriously injured, but the plane ended up partially in the water. When he was hauled to the official inquisition and asked how such a thing could have happened, he faced the battalion of lawyers and industry experts and said, “I f—ed up.” End of statement.

Most of us would be stunned (and/or amused) to hear responses like that in business today. After all, when was the last time someone in your organization (maybe it was you) asked, “Who’s accountable for this disaster?” and someone rushed forward, arms outstretched, shouting, “It was me! Hold ME accountable! I’m the one!”

Instead, we point the finger. He, she, they, it did it! It wasn’t me. As Steve Toltz wrote in A Fraction of the Whole, “The great thing about blame is that she goes wherever you send her, no questions asked.”

The words “I’m holding you accountable” are spoken thousands of times a day around the world during meetings, on the phone, in hallways to individuals, teams, and, yes, teenagers. And my thought is always Good luck with that.

Don’t get me wrong. Accountability is a big deal, one of the rarest, most precious commodities to be found. Next to human connectivity, accountability is the single most powerful, most desired, yet least understood characteristic of a successful human being and a successful environment. The long-term benefits of personal accountability have enormous implications for the quality of our lives, and there is certainly a direct correlation between a company’s health and well-being and the degree of accountability displayed by its employees.

Why, then, in a study by the Table Group, did 80 percent of 132 executive teams score “red,” or poor, on accountability? And why are our efforts to improve the level of accountability in organizations so ineffective?

It’s because we’re so busy trying to find out who is accountable that we forget to check the one place we should be looking: in the mirror.

Common wisdom tells us that powerful partnerships require that we …

1. understand needs;

2. clarify expectations;

3. collaborate on solutions; and

4. meet commitments.

Let’s acknowledge that few of us are good at all of these steps, particularly the last one, and our efforts are further complicated because we don’t understand what accountability really is, how it differs from responsibility, why it shows up, why it disappears, and what it really requires.

The purpose of this chapter is to address these issues and to provide a game plan for creating a performance culture that values initiative, problem solving, agility, risk taking, and a bias toward action. A company filled to the brim with individuals who, instead of laying blame, willingly and gladly accept accountability for everything that’s got their name on it. Given challenges, they ask themselves, what am I going to do? The answer isn’t “duck and cover.” They step up to the task and hold others able to do the same.

Before we dive in, to get you thinking, write down your answers to the following questions:

What is an example of an issue confronting you or your team that is made worse by a failure of accountability?

What results is this causing?

What about an example in your personal life?

What results is this causing?

Who’s Accountable?

Though you may be clear with others regarding due dates for deliverables, there are inevitably going to be problems, snags, bumps, obstacles, delays. People get busy, waylaid, a colleague doesn’t do his or her part, a vendor is late with a shipment, a personal emergency (a sick child, toxic mold in the house, an injury to the family dog) derails a key member of the team.

And, too often, we give people more work than they can handle effectively, hold them accountable for getting it all done, and express frustration when they present us with a list of very good reasons for their failure to deliver. Maybe the package was mistakenly shipped to Ankora, when it was supposed to go to Anchorage. (As we speak, someone in the Niger inner delta region is trying to figure out what to do with six pallets of advanced therapy moisture lotion.)

As we speak, someone in the Niger inner delta region is trying to figure out what to do with six pallets of advanced therapy moisture lotion.

The point is, when something like this happens, our knee-jerk response is often “I want to know who’s accountable for this!” And the automatic reply? “Not me!”

I remember working with a team of high potentials at a global shoe manufacturer. At one point, the founder of the company, a tall, imposing figure, walked into the room and sat in the back. I had just begun to explore the notion of accountability with the team when he stood and thundered, “What I want to know is, if we take a successful store manager and move him into a territory that’s struggling, and nothing improves, who’s accountable—the manager or the person who moved him?”

In other words, who will receive my wrath? At which point, forty intelligent people—the future leaders of his company—did their best to shrink their subatomic particles and vanish from his radar.

Why? Because most of us associate accountability with blame, culpability, being responsible, being wrong, maybe even being fired. In fact, we’d likely define accountability as “clarity about whose head will roll when things go wrong.” Given that accountability conjures the image of a firing squad without benefit of blindfold or last meal of Frito-Lays and Milk Duds (I admit to strange and powerful cravings), no wonder we don’t eagerly raise our hands when we hear the question, “Who is accountable?” Instead, we insist that he, she, it, they did it to us!

And it’s no wonder. Deflecting blame seems to be in our DNA!

A marvelous example is Koko, one of the world’s most famous gorillas, known for mastering more than one thousand words in American Sign Language and, in doing so, helping to overturn preconceptions about the limits of animal intelligence. One day Koko broke one of her toys (the act was captured on video). The next day one of her trainers came in, picked up the broken toy, and asked, “Koko, what happened to your toy?”

Koko promptly pointed to the assistant trainer. True story!

Non Est Mea Culpa

Humans, including those in high places, often employ a slightly more sophisticated version of pointing. Take a statement from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s attempt to exonerate himself from any accountability regarding the firing of U.S. attorneys: “I acknowledge that mistakes were made here.”

With those words, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was using a technique often thought to be a politician’s best friend: the passive voice. Why is this technique so popular? Because the passive voice takes accountability out of the picture. Think about it. “Mistakes were made.” There is no actor in this sentence. Why won’t those pesky mistakes quit making themselves!

Passive voice has so cheapened the concept of a mea culpa that various officials in government hearings and press conferences actually seem to be proud of themselves when they acknowledge that “mistakes were made.”

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear an official say, “I blew it”? After fainting from shock, most people would admire that candor and maybe trust that the same mistake would not be made again. Think about how President Obama’s candid admissions of error early in his administration bolstered his popularity, rather than harmed it. YouTube features a clip titled “Obama on Daschle: I Made a Mistake,” and several other clips in which President Obama models the kind of personal accountability and candor we crave in our leaders today. But let’s not hold our breath that everyone will embrace this behavior, wedded as so many are to the passive voice. A duck and dodge if ever there was one.

What we want to know is what mistakes were made and who made them? Please don’t give us the generic they—as in “They didn’t handle this correctly.” Which actual human beings had their hands all over this? Give us a name. Was it you? And what exactly is going to be done to correct this and ensure it doesn’t happen again?

In one 9 Chickweed Lane comic strip (rendered by Brooke McEldowney, my favorite cartoonist) the character Thorax, who sells strange goods and services from roadside stands when he isn’t ruminating on his alien origins or dusting off the quantum anomaly in the tractor shed, sits at a roadside stand with a sign reading: REPUDIATIONS RUS. He explains to Edda, another character:

Being as it is election season, I have started up a denial consultancy. While the candidates and the news media uncork their relentless gush of allegations and accusations, I stand ready to provide custom tailored denials for every occasion. I have a new spring line of stout denials, categorical denials, unwavering denials, firm denials, swift denials, flat denials, emphatic denials, steadfast denials, outraged denials and, as summer approaches, a few angry denunciations with matching counter-accusations.

Funny and sad and true.

I have a new spring line of stout denials, categorical denials, unwavering denials, firm denials, swift denials, flat denials, emphatic denials, steadfast denials, outraged denials and, as summer approaches, a few angry denunciations with matching counter-accusations.
—Brooke McEldowney
, 9 Chickweed Lane

Of course, failings in accountability happen everywhere, not just in politics. Personally, I’d like someone to explain why Hollywood produces so many lousy movies, why I’m put on hold while a recorded message assures me that my call is important, why hosts of quilting shows sound like they’re talking to three-year-olds, why I can only use my hard-earned frequent-flier miles to go to places I don’t want to visit at the most inconvenient times imaginable while sitting in the last coach seat next to the toilets, why doctors with whom I have appointments think nothing of making me wait for hours, and why there still isn’t a cure for the common cold. A real cure. Whom can I hold accountable for all of THAT?

And while I’m at it, to my knowledge, no individual or group has claimed culpability for the collapse of investment banks, the escalating price of gas, the failure to alert residents of Myanmar of the approaching cyclone that took the lives of one hundred thousand people, or the CIA’s destruction of ninety-two interrogation videos. And will someone please tell me why Bernie Madoff did not receive swifter justice, once it was known that he had put thousands of people who trusted him in serious financial straits?

The point is: Are failures of accountability happening in your organization, in your life—perhaps including how you’ve handled or mishandled your own financial matters? (Bernie is a rat, in my opinion, but what might you have done differently?)

Before we identify the “tells” and talk about what to do, consider two competing ideas:

The progress of my organization depends on my leaders, colleagues, and customers.

or …

In a very real sense, the progress of my organization depends on my progress as an individual now.

To which of these beliefs do you subscribe?

One of the reasons so many of us fail to “succeed,” by whatever definition we may choose, is that we believe in the first idea. In other words, we believe someone else is running the show, that our progress depends on our bosses and how they treat us, on our colleagues and how talented and helpful they are or aren’t, on corporate politics, on customers and whether they have the capacity to understand why they require our products or services, on our spouses or life partners and the degree to which we do or do not feel appreciated and supported by them. And despite whatever therapy we may have endured, we still lay accountability for our progress, or the lack thereof, on our parents’ doorsteps, on the degree to which our parents equipped us with all good things throughout our childhoods or messed us up forever.

We’re doing the best we can, but really, one can hardly expect us to overcome the pull of the moon.

This attitude certainly makes for a well-protected ego with built-in excuses for just about every eventuality. It allows us to take credit for the good stuff, but when results aren’t so good, well, in that case it’s not about us; it’s about him, her, them, or it. We’re merely well-intentioned jellyfish, buffeted by things beyond our control, carried this way and that by the waves, the tides, the politics, the marketplace, the economy, the budget. We’re doing the best we can, but really, one can hardly expect us to overcome the pull of the moon.

On the other hand, if someone asked if we considered ourselves a victim, we’d say, “No way! I’m a powerful person, and for your information, my organization recognizes me as a high potential!”

Well, hang in there for a minute or two. Have you ever said any of the following things? Or thought them?

· My department is struggling because the strategy is flawed.

· I’m behind because so-and-so (or such-and-such) is a bottleneck.

· Our industry is suffering because the margins are tight, our unions are threatening to strike, our competition has forced us into a price war, and our customers have unreasonable expectations.

· Our problem? The price of oil! The board of directors, et cetera.

· We can’t get this done without the right technology.

· I haven’t been able to focus on this project because I have ADD. (Have you noticed that some people aren’t complaining when they tell you they have ADD? They’re bragging!)

I often speak at functions focused on women in leadership, offering my thoughts about what needs to happen for women to step into and remain in senior leadership roles. In 2005, when I read the Catalyst Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners of the Fortune 500, I was appalled. Apparently, according to the women surveyed, the three significant barriers they face that men rarely do are

1. gender-based stereotyping;

2. exclusion from informal networks; and

3. lack of role models.

This was not the appalling part. It was the solution offered: Not that women should work to defy gender stereotypes, or make efforts to include themselves in informal networks, or strive to be better role models for their peers and for future generations of women. No, it was that companies should mandate diversity and inclusion, because clearly companies are to blame for the barriers facing women. Where’s the accountability here?

I’m not suggesting that these barriers don’t exist. The glass ceiling is still very real in many industries, and sadly, gender discrimination in the workplace still exists. But what appalled me was how quick the women surveyed were to deny any accountability for the struggles they face. After all, no doubt all three of those conditions existed for Madeleine Albright when she began her stint in the White House as a secretary. Lots of people wondered how “Maddie” went from secretary to secretary of state. Albright’s answer: “By doing whatever I was asked to do, including making a pot of coffee, to the best of my ability. I made the best coffee to be found!”

Still, many women play the victim, blaming their flatlined careers on the company, society, the world. And then they wonder why things aren’t improving. Accountability has to start from within.

For example, I agree with the female director of data management in a financial firm who suggests that where many women fail is in not being specific about their career aspirations with the people who are in a position to point them in the right direction. Not taking the time to reflect or network to understand what’s out there for which they might have exactly what is needed. Not actively seeking candid feedback to learn what qualities and capabilities would make them a viable candidate for a new role. And not taking the steps to work on those qualities and demonstrate their considerable talents, abilities, and willingness to learn.

So I confess that I’m not sympathetic when I hear women say things like, “Me, well, the truth is, I don’t have a real shot at the top because:

… relationships are formed on the golf course, and I’m not a golfer.”

… I have young kids at home and can’t put in the eighty-hour workweeks it takes to get ahead around here.”

… so-and-so is plotting and scheming for the position I want, and I just won’t play those games.”

… frankly, why would I want a so-called promotion! Those guys in the C suite are miserable. I want to enjoy my weekends.”

… people don’t listen to me because I’m a woman.”

I hear this last one from women a lot, and I suspect the reason nobody listens to them is that they say things like that! In my view, the best reasons are really just the worst excuses.

Years ago, a woman who reported to me complained frequently that she hadn’t closed any sales because customers weren’t returning her calls. I finally said, “Then make yourself the kind of person whose phone calls get returned!” She was shocked, hurt, angry. But starting the next day, her phone calls got returned, and she soon became our top salesperson. In other words, she did something differently. She changed, not the customers.

I see victim tells all the time. For example, at some point during every Fierce Conversations training, someone will say something like, “I would love to have amazing conversations like this in my company. It would be fantastic. But our leadership and our culture wouldn’t support this level of candor.”

This statement, this belief is a huge tell. Among other things, it indicates that we don’t have a leader here. We may have a potential leader and very likely a delightful person, just not a leader. We have a victim. Someone who tells him- or herself and others, “I can’t be myself here,” when actually, a more honest statement would be “Right now, I’m choosing not to muster the courage, will, skill, energy, focus … whatever … needed to do or say what needs doing or saying.”

So if I’m in the room when someone says they can’t have fierce conversations because their culture won’t support it, I usually say, “Where is this so-called culture with which you’re unhappy? Is it out there somewhere? Or is every person in your organization, including you, a walking hologram of the culture? As I look at you right now, I am looking at the culture!”

You are the culture. I am the culture.

The point is, the culture is not some nebulous and mysterious force out there somewhere. You are the culture. I am the culture. And each of us shapes that culture each time we walk into a room, pick up the phone, send an e-mail.

Fierce leaders know that they influence the culture one conversation at a time, responding honestly or guardedly when asked what they think. Since you are the culture, you go first! And don’t point your finger at leadership—unless you ARE the leadership.

My visual for this:

(in the world, in a company, in a family)



Revisiting the two competing ideas, remember that in a very real sense, the progress of your organization depends on your progress as an individual now.

So what about the now part?

My thought used to be something on the order of Look, here’s the thing. I’m shoehorned into my calendar, got a to-do list that feels impossible! So how ‘bout if I focus on some personal development next quarter, next year, when I have a little time?

That was me not getting it. And then I remembered something a friend said: “Unconsciously, we’re always choosing deep growth or slow death. And sometimes sudden death.” A bit dramatic, but I got it. I was choosing excuses, practicing victim.

So I’m reminding myself and you, the reader, that now is where it happens. Great stories, great changes, great results—those fatal moments, events, choices, conversations that put in place something irreversible—turn on now.

The Victim Context

Victim is a loaded word, though we all go into victim mode from time to time. It’s part of being human. No doubt you know someone who is a bit of a victim. It could be you. Be assured that I don’t mean to demonize the word victim. I personally love the victim mode. Sure wish it worked!

Here’s a little quiz.

Do you like to look good? Do you have a tough time admitting to mistakes? When was the last time you apologized to someone? Is your image more important than learning, more important than results? Have you ever said, “Mistakes have been made”? Do you sometimes pretend that you know, rather than admit that you don’t? Do you ever blame an outcome on the fact that you weren’t coached, or weren’t coached well enough, or that you weren’t given the tools, resources, support needed to succeed, or that something happened that was simply unfair? Are you somewhat risk averse? When you hear the word accountability or when someone suggests that you are accountable for something, what is your internal reaction?

The victim mode shows up everywhere. Some typical examples:

I got a speeding ticket. Everybody else speeds, so why was I the one who got caught?

My work load is too big. I couldn’t possibly get it all done.

I didn’t get the promotion I deserved. They gave it to the boss’s son.

I’m better than the idiot they just hired.

My upbringing was flawed.

My partner is a louse.

This kind of thing always happens to me. I must have some big V for victim on my back.

They didn’t ask for my input.

The world has changed! And without consulting me!

Those younger employees don’t have a work ethic. They insist on work/life balance, which is really irritating.

Or have you ever tried to convince someone that you are more of a victim than they are? Victim debates are hilarious.

I have it worse than you do! It’s out of my control. They’re out to get me.

My life is worse than yours! Hooray!

No, they’re really out to get me!

And when we win, we celebrate! My life is worse than yours! Hooray!

During the Bush administration, one of our trainers worked in Brazil, and someone there said, “Our president is worse than yours.” Taken aback, our trainer replied, “Good for you.”

Why is the victim mode so common? It has wonderful benefits! Victimization is easy, a reason to blame. It’s not me; it’s you, it’s them.

How does the victim mode get reinforced? Sometimes it’s because everybody agrees that I’m a victim, especially if I’m a good storyteller. We get oohs and aahs. And lots of sympathy. Some people are victim magnets: You poor thing, let me help you. In fact, it’s downright irritating when someone interrupts the extremely pleasurable experience of telling our victim story and starts to tell one of his or her own!

The victim mode also gets reinforced because it is frequently rewarded. We have a litigation culture that rewards victims on a regular basis. And the squeaky wheel gets noticed. The people who just work hard—not so much.

Being a victim also gives people a sense of being with the in group, the in crowd. Many people don’t go to accountability because they don’t want to lose the camaraderie. Let me tell you how hard this is. This company is evil. We agree. We are comrades.

Another huge draw of being a victim is that I don’t have to look at myself. As we learned in Fierce Practice #1, self-reflection is tough. We have amazing clarity about others, but not about ourselves. I’ve noticed that BS often sounds true in my head, even if I know it isn’t.

Plus, if we’re really good at this victim cycle, we don’t have to do any work on ourselves or confront our own behavior, because it isn’t about us. I’ve assessed the problem, and you’re it. If you and everybody else would accommodate me, I’d be happier. The quality of my life has nothing to do with me, so I don’t have to do anything. I can’t. It’s out of my hands. If it were in my hands, I’d take action.

For some people, it’s a risk to take a long, relaxing day off; for others, it’s a risk to work two in a row.

When we shine a light on this, it starts to sound flawed. The main benefit of being a victim is safety. As long as safety (in the short term) is motivating us, we will pick victim every time. Tempting as it is, the victim cycle is a very addictive and destructive one. After passing the buck, the victim will become depressed and fretful and his or her self-esteem and self-confidence will take a major hit. Relationships will start to suffer; team cohesion will be lost. Then the victim is likely to take these worsening results as further evidence of victimization and further justify the victim mode. At best, nothing will improve, and in most cases, things will get worse.

In order to break out of the victim cycle and improve results, we have to take risks. When you hear me talk about risk, it’s a very relative term. For some people, it’s a risk to take a long, relaxing day off; for others, it’s a risk to work two in a row.

Risking is about leaving the familiar. As human beings, it’s amazing what we can get used to.

Are You In or Out of the Cave?

The desire to stay safe has been around a long time. It’s hardwired into us. Based on research, brain experts agree that we have what is called the “reptilian mind” or “ancient brain” or “survival mind,” which forms the committee of our ancient fears.

Picture two cave people standing in a cave looking out onto the savanna. They notice something moving in the tall grass. What might the participatory learner feel compelled to do? Go out there and investigate! And what might happen to that brave soul?

He becomes dinner. So, quite simply, we have more relatives who stayed in the cave.

It’s the same for us today. When we contemplate leaving the safety of our comfort zone, we run the decision by a committee of our ancient fears to see if it’s a good idea.

What will that committee of fear tell us?

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. My uncle tried that and he died.” What are some of the traits we might exhibit when we choose to stay in the cave?

· Withdraw or attack.

· Be cynical or critical: “That won’t work,” “Why bother,” et cetera.

· Be self critical. And if we are beating ourselves up, we won’t be in the mood to leave our cave. Besides, we’re busy beating ourselves up.

· Lose self-esteem and confidence.

· Resist change.

· Enjoy and point out the failures of others—because it justifies our having played it safe.

· Play not to lose instead of playing to win.

· Overstructure everything, micromanage.

· Place great importance on distractions—so that we can stay away from anything where we may fail or make a mistake.

· Experience no real joy or excitement; life is just okay.

· Have a strong need to be right, have things our way at the expense of …

During a training session on fierce accountability, we have a fun, interactive way to identify our cave-dwelling temptations by creating the cave of our dreams. It’s called Design-a-Cave. Participants select and affix stickers to a picture of a cave in their journals, decorating their caves with all of the things that would make them comfortable and justify a very long stay.

What might you choose? I’d select a fireplace, a comfy sofa, a glass of red wine, a KEEP OUTI sign, my laptop, my dogs, some good books to read, fresh flowers, my Stevie Award for best entrepreneur of the year, indicating that my work clearly “exceeds expectations,” and a framed photograph of someone who took a major risk (one I’m avoiding) and was promptly shown the door as a result.

We love our caves. And while the cave is fine to visit every now and again, it becomes a problem when we live there and never venture out.

While the cave is fine to visit every now and again, it becomes a problem when we live there and never venture out.

When life is primarily about creating safety, we are in no danger of becoming the change agents who bring our highest and best to our own lives much less to those around us. People who stay in the cave are rarely the people who end up as executives and managers of a company. At least, not a company that has any hope of surviving and thriving in the twenty-first century. Are you in or out of your cave?

Justified “Victim”

Remember, being a victim is not a question of whether we can justify our list of reasons explaining why we are a victim, it’s a question of how we use those reasons to justify staying a victim. After all, every one of these justified-victim events may be true. Maybe Maria did kick you in the leg, or you are working for a boss who is a tyrant. And maybe you were raised by demons! If you were victimized, you were victimized.

Being a victim is not the problem. The problem comes in the next stage, where we gather evidence to prove that we are powerless in the situation. Being a justified victim is very seductive, so much so that we start to display our victim evidence, our evidence of powerlessness, on our chests like a badge of pride.

Let’s say my manager called me on the carpet. I might say, “Do you know why I’m not successful in my job? (Whoosh. I open my jacket and unfurl the stories.) Do you know why my relationships don’t work? (Tada!) Do you know why I don’t feel genuinely good about myself? (Bullet point, bullet point, bullet point!) You have the audacity not to buy this list? You come in here and tell me I need to work harder! Can’t you read this list? Have you no compassion?”

Why are these well-justified, proven, internalized lists so important to most of us?

Because they become who we are. We identify with our list. If you make my list wrong, you make me wrong. And I sense that you identify with your list, so there’s no way I want to make you wrong.

The people who buy our list are our friends, truly understanding people, and those who don’t buy our list, who don’t understand, are a pain in the butt. One of the most common and heartbreaking results of the victim mode is detachment. When we shut out everyone who doesn’t buy into our victim list, we run the risk of shutting out the very people we need the most. As Steve Toltz writes in A Fraction of the Whole, “When you withdraw from the world, the world withdraws too, in equal measure. It’s a two-step, you and the world.”

“When you withdraw from the world, the world withdraws too, in equal measure.”
—Steve Toltz

Interestingly, we like it when people buy our lists: “Oh, you poor thing. Look at what’s been done to you. Let me comfort you.” Though we get off on that, at the same time, we lose respect for people who buy our list, because it’s a list of why we’re not able, why we can’t, why we’re not powerful in a situation.

I love you and hate you for agreeing with me.

If we didn’t have these lists, what would we have to do? We’d have to do what we don’t want to do, in some cases, what scares us.

Remember, I’m not saying your list isn’t true. Every item on your list may be 100 percent true. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not the event. It’s our context, our translation of the event to ward off accountability, and to justify staying in our cave.

Practicing Squid Eye

What might you notice if you were practicing squid eye that would suggest holding people accountable is an unhealthy practice that is causing more problems than it’s solving? Check any of the following tells that apply to yourteam or organization. Or to you.

People playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Legislating accountability doesn’t instill enthusiasm. It usually creates an internal resistance, or at best resentful compliance. “I’m going to be tracking your progress, John. I’m holding you accountable.” Accountability is enforced on John. So John does just enough to act accountable only while being watched, like kids when their parents are in the room.

Lack of productivity. Just as in relationships, we create environments we either enjoy or endure. And when no one, including leaders, takes personal responsibility for their results, people simply punch the clock and wait for the day to end. Tick, tock. And if you have people around you who are just enduring the day, my guess is they aren’t very productive.

Lack of clarity, lots of confusion. Because people are scared of being blamed for poor results, no one wants to own anything or define their role in the outcome. There is resistance to even partial ownership. It’s difficult to solve a problem when it won’t sit still and declare itself.

Tunnel vision. People are so fearful of being blamed that they focus on tracking evidence to justify mediocre results, rather than on overcoming the obstacles in their way.

Nasty surprises. Most of us don’t like to admit we’re struggling, and when “accountability” is added to the mix, the tendency is to delay the discovery of impending doom as long as possible. Consequently, unless a manager has been extraordinarily vigilant, it’s often at the last moment—just before the “due date”—that he or she discovers how far short of goal we are.

Generational frustrations. Boomers who try to motivate Gen Xers and Yers by holding them accountable, thinking they’ll rise to the challenge if their jobs are on the line, are in for a shock. Baby boomers may rise to that because what’s important to them is job security. They will stomach a lot of crap to pay their mortgage. But Gen Xers and Yers will stay long enough to get experience, to get the company’s name on their résumés, and then they will leave. The boomers will be retiring soon. Then what?

Unsustainability. In an emergency, legislated accountability can work in the short term. But for the long term, you’re looking at a bitter, shut down, passive/resistant work force. What’s sad is that when this happens, most command-and-control leaders say, “We need to be tougher on accountability,” and what they get is a negative result quicker.

What’s sad is that most command-and-control leaders say, “We need to be tougher on accountability,” and what they get is a negative result quicker.

Bitterness toward coworkers. You end up with an adversarial, divisive, tattletale environment in which people are keeping score on who is doing what and are quick to point out one another’s faults and missteps.

Difficulty leading. People will stop coming to you and instead go to others behind your back, because they are too afraid to tell you if something is not working. And if you don’t follow through on your threats, you lose credibility.

A culture of dependency. People do only and exactly what you tell them to do. Why bother going the extra mile?

Lack of enthusiasm. Some people will anesthetize themselves, numb out.

Stalled strategies and initiatives. “We can’t do it because …”

Stalled careers. Blaming others for failure is not the behavior of a leader.

What Were We Thinking?

By now, I hope we’ve established that shifts in our beliefs result in changed behavior, the behavior needed to get the results you want for yourself and for your organization. Which beliefs do you hold?

Negative context:

Positive context:

If other people or the situation were different, I’d have the results I want.

What could I do differently to create the results I want?

Reality can’t be changed. There’s no point in fighting it.

Perhaps we can change reality with thoughtful conversations.

It’s important that I collect evidence to justify my behavior and performance.

I’d rather get the results I want than be right about why I can’t get them.

Accountability determines whom to blame if things don’t go well.

Accountability identifies who will keep things on track and resolve obstacles encountered along the way.

Delegation requires that I hold people accountable.

Delegation requires that I model accountability, assign responsibilities, and hold people able.

I can’t create the results I want because of realities outside my control.

Given my current reality, I need to figure out what to do to create the results, the career, the relationships, and the life I want.

It’s not about me. It’s about him, her, them, that, the situation.

Part (or all) of this is about me, a behavior, belief, or attitude, which I can do something about once I recognize that I need to make a change.

Other people’s excuses are lame. Mine are real!

Everybody’s excuses, including mine, are real, including the “lame” ones.

I do the best I can with what I have. It’s up to management to solve problems and remove obstacles in my way.

Doing my best includes solving problems on my own, and when that’s not possible, I need to suggest solutions and make clear requests to ensure success.


Unfortunately, lots of people live in the left column, so let’s revisit Brenda’s question: “What do you win if you win your argument for these beliefs?” You win all of the tells you spotted with squid eye and much more, none of it good.

On the other hand, what happens when the beliefs in the right column are present?

· People bring discretionary effort, creativity, passion, and innovation to the workplace on their own.

· They bring pride and loyalty to the team, to the organization.

· They bring energy. It’s energizing to be around people who step up to the plate.

· Challenges are addressed and resolved.

· Things get done. On time.

When I’m around someone who is truly accountable, my first thought is How amazing! My second thought is How wonderful!

The Fierce Practice: Model Accountability. Hold People Able.

Initially, for most people, the notion of “fierce accountability” sounds frightening, aggressive, full of conflict, smacks of a heavy workload. Yet if you think of fierce in the most positive light, like fierce loyalty, fierce resolve, or fierce friendship, you might associate fierce accountability with a bias toward action and passionate commitment to exceptional results, even in the face of obstacles.

When I’m around someone who is truly accountable, my first thought is How amazing! My second thought is How wonderful!

Here’s the official definition of fierce accountability:

A desire to take responsibility for results; a bias toward solution, action. An attitude; a personal, private, nonnegotiable choice about how to live one’s life.

The question is, given my goals, how will I achieve them? Given the barriers to my progress and the current results on my plate, some of which are troubling, what am I going to do?

Complicated times call for simple answers. Simply put, if it’s to be, it’s up to me.

Complicated times call for simple answers. Simply put, if it’s to be, it’s up to me.

For example, think back to the question at the beginning of this chapter about an issue made worse by a failure of accountability. If you ask yourself, “What part of this issue, this failure to execute, this disappointing result, has my name on it?” you’d probably recognize your own fingerprints somewhere.

Accountability is not a process or a tool. It’s what helps a process or tool become effective. Can you think of a very good structure or process in your company that sings in the hands of some people and weeps in the hands of others? I don’t think most processes, procedures, or structures are inherently good or bad. It’s who’s got their hands on it.

What if, instead of holding others accountable, we held ourselves accountable and others able—able to take charge, take action, and effect change? What if, instead of pointing fingers and laying blame, we modeled accountability and inspired others to do the same?

The fact is that no one can mandate accountability for another person. To say “I’m holding you accountable” is pointless. The only person I can hold accountable is myself. Personal accountability is a way of life—and like all fierce practices, it’s an inside job. The accountability conversation is one I have with myself and only with myself. But the good news is, it’s contagious. So let’s go there ourselves first, and then look at ways to influence others to step up to the plate.

As with each fierce leadership practice, accountability begins (and in this case, ends) with you. You being accountable in front of everybody else. Not talking about it, not bragging about it, just modeling it. Doing what you said you’d do. Taking responsibility for disappointing results. Focusing on taking action. Asking, given this result, what will I do about it?

And if things go wrong with others, asking the same question. Given this result, what are you going to do? And you must give up blaming. Here’s another of my favorite poems by Hafiz.

The Sad Game

Keeps the sad game going,
It keeps stealing all your wealth—
Giving it to an imbecile with
No financial skills.
Dear one,

Take a moment to think about what results you would like to improve or have more of in your job. Some of these things may be tangible, outside of us, easy to measure. We can touch them, see them, feel them, pick them up, or take them to the bank. A bigger paycheck, a promotion, a bigger office, more time, hitting sales goals, maintaining a process, on-time delivery.

Intangible results are inside of us, hard to measure. They include how we feel about our tangible results. Work/life balance, peace and serenity, job satisfaction, less stress, a sense of accomplishment and achievement, camaraderie, a sense of connection, cohesion, pride.

When setting goals, it’s important to focus on both tangible and intangible results, because it’s possible to achieve your tangible results and not get your desired intangible results. Many of us were raised to believe that if we have the “stuff” that is associated with achieving goals, we’ll be happy. And yet I’ve known many very wealthy, bitter people who had lots of stuff but no fulfulling intangibles. Just because you have one doesn’t necessarily mean you will have the other.

While the tangibles tend to be pretty similar for most people (who wouldn’t want a raise or a nicer office?), intangibles vary more widely. For example, boomers want job security. Gen Yers and Gen Xers don’t believe in security. We might as well be talking about Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. They’re looking for personal and professional growth, and if they aren’t experiencing that, they look for the next place to go. The point is, we must manage for the intangibles, what people really want from their jobs.

As you consider the results you want for yourself, the first principle of Fierce Conversations comes in handy: Master the courage to interrogate reality. Not much chance of adopting personal accountability if I’m in denial about the results that have my name on them. Failures, meltdowns, divorces, terminations build up gradually, then land in our laps, on our desks suddenly. If I’ve chosen accountability as a way of life, I always want to know how I’m doing so I can course correct when needed. Also, tackle your toughest challenge today. If you tend to procrastinate, stop it!

Hit the pause button and write your answers to these questions:

For what tangible results should I hold myself accountable?

For what intangible results should I hold myself accountable?

Since it’s pretty clear by now that accountability begins with you, let’s look at the steps in the “fierce” practice of modeling accountability and holding others able.

The Fierce Accountability Cycle


If you look at areas of your life in which you are not doing particularly well, my guess is those are areas in which you demonstrate little accountability. To prompt your thinking, take a look at the results cycle on the following page.

Is there a situation in your life with which you’re unhappy? An environment that’s not working, professionally or personally? Or a relationship with a coworker or family member?

For example, let’s imagine that your context is “If my manager were different, I’d be fine.” What evidence have you gathered to prove this is right? What are you feeling as a result? What is showing up behavior-ally? What results are being created?

Think about a result or an area of your life that you’d like to improve, then fill in the results cycle on the following page.

Taking an accountable stance requires a great deal of courage. We may have to give up being “right.” We can be right all the way to disempowerment, failure, total meltdown, a lost job, lost customers, bankruptcy, divorce.

We can be right all the way to disempowerment, failure, total meltdown, a lost job, lost customers, bankruptcy, divorce.

As I said earlier, as long as being right or playing it safe is most important to us, we will always pick “victim” and stay in the cave. The rub is that it is very difficult to improve results while we are in the cave. So the challenge is to leave the cave and the comfort and safety of “victim” and move into accountability.

When fear is whispering in our ear to go back into the cave, we need something or someone more important to us than fear to motivate us out to the delta in search of better meat. Sometimes it’s pain, or hitting rock bottom. Sometimes it’s the knowledge that the status quo isn’t working, that someone needs to take the risk or everyone starves.

I’m sure you have an example of constructive context that has gotten you the results you wanted, and if you look at the areas of your life that are working the best, my guess is that those are areas in which you demonstrated accountability.

For example, you may be in a relationship that is extremely positive and rewarding. What was or is the context that allowed you to create this amazing relationship? What risks have you taken? How often have you found yourself far from your cave, exploring entirely new territory, with no guaranteed outcome? Or perhaps you are surrounded by colleagues who are committed to you at a deep level. Or you completed a complex project within your deadline and came in way under budget, in spite of serious challenges along the way.

You made choices every day that produced these great results.

Take a moment to capture an example of your results cycle in an area of your life that is successful (see the following page).

But what if you inherited a problem? A dysfunctional work team? A key project with inadequate resources? You are being treated unfairly. You don’t like it. You want it to be different.

Let’s look at an extreme example.

Let’s say I wake up in a stainless-steel room. Stainless-steel ceiling, stainless steel floor, stainless-steel walls.

I notice a sign on the wall with a little light above it. The sign says, “When the light blinks, the walls will begin to move together and touch.” Like in the spy movies. Yowza!

The light blinks. The walls begin to close.

I notice there are two holes cut into the floor. Both are large enough for me to fit into, are lined with stainless steel, and have labels that say “8 FEET DEEP,” and “4 FEET DEEP.” They are both filled with sewage.

Now, do I have a choice? I could do nothing and become very thin, or I could pick a hole. So I pick the four-foot hole and jump in as the walls close in.

Did I make the best choice I could, given what I knew? Probably, and now I am sealed in a stainless-steel cylinder in four feet of sewage!

Do I have a choice now? Yes. The ultimate choice, my context. I can say, “Ick, ick, ick. This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. It’s not fair. Why do things like this always have to happen to me?” or I can say, “Thank goodness it’s only up to here.”

I’m not suggesting that when things are really bad, your context should be “Oh, boy, sewage! Gotta love it!” But in this case, compared to the alternative, I’d take it. I suspect that one source of much of our unhappiness is that we compare our reality with a fantasy of what we think should have been. We compare our real mate with mate charming, our real job with job charming, our real company, clients, et cetera, with the charming versions of them.

How ‘bout I embrace reality, explore my options, clarify the results I want to produce, and take a step in that direction?

Don’t ask me how I’d get out of the sewage-filled cylinder. I haven’t a clue. But after reviewing how I got there in the first place, I’d try to figure something out.

Why do we pick the context of “Oh, why me?” Why don’t we want to acknowledge that we always have choice, especially in the difficult areas of our lives? Because then we would have to leave the cave, venture into the tall grass, and get to work. It’s easier to complain, resent, and blame than to embrace the reality of sewage and do something about it.

Years ago, a Native American gave a talk at a conference. He said it always felt like two dogs were living inside him. One was a mean, adversarial dog, and one was a nice, compassionate dog. They fought constantly. Someone in the audience asked, “Which one wins?” He answered, “The one I feed the most.”

Victim mode is about short-term safety, at the expense of long-term growth.

Accountability is a choice. We can choose to feed the victim dog or the accountability dog. Victim mode is about short-term safety, at the expense of long-term growth. What I want is for you to have a tool that works for the long term, regardless of the environment, not in reaction to it.

You are powerful. The question is, In what direction is your power pointed? You can be powerful in resistance—I’ve been downsized, lost my job. Whom can I blame?!—or you can point your power in a positive direction: This is an opportunity to change my life for the better, so I will gather evidence about how I can be successful at this.

Think of something you want to accomplish, even though your current reality might feel like four feet of sewage. Think of something big, something that’s really important to you, something you yearn for. Even though you might think it’s impossible, write it down below.

“Why I can _________________.” Now, what do you know about yourself that serves as evidence that you can create the result you want, even in your challenging situation? Write these things down. They might be experiences, traits, strengths, anything you can think of that reminds you that you are able.

I will tell you that for most people, this list is harder to fill out than their victim list.

Given this assessment, how are you feeling? Hopeful? Encouraged? And given these emotions, what shifts in behavior might you make? What decisions might you make? What actions will you take? What results do you think you might create?

Instead of gathering evidence for why you can’t, gather evidence to ensure your success. That includes finding others who will support your success rather than bond over mutual scars and wounds.

In general, who takes better care of their homes, those who rent their homes or those who own them? I want you to own this situation, not rent it.

Might you fail? Yes, and in failure you will learn. None of us can avoid failure now and then. What we can do is change the context in which we place failure.

Fierce accountability is about ownership. You own the problem. This is essential. Think of this analogy: In general, who takes better care of their homes, those who rent their homes or those who own them? I want you to own this situation, not rent it. From ownership, move into decision. It’s amazing how our decisions change when we own them. And then we go into action—we do something about it. At this point, we are nowhere near our caves—we’re miles away. And each time we take a risk, we build our confidence.

I will summarize the benefits of accountability by quoting people who have made the choice of fierce accountability and who have been truly practicing it for a while.

I’ve learned not only what doesn’t work, but also what does work.

I’ve grown. I’ve gotten stronger.

More people want to hang out with me.

I’ve increased the possibilities for myself.

My perception is expanded.

My brain and spirit are awake. I live more in the moment, present,

rather than moping about the past. I spend much more time outside of my cave having adventures. I’ve gained admiration and respect. I’ve produced some amazing results.

I am emotionally enriched. I feel good about myself. I am happy.


If you have done the exercises so far, you’ve had a fierce conversation with yourself, which is where accountability begins. Now what about “others” in your life—colleagues, friends, family members—whose results and the results of everyone around them would be greatly improved if they chose personal accountability as a way of life?

Here’s a true story, one you can emulate.

In order to build internal confidence, stimulate cross-boundary collaboration, and achieve five knee-buckling, high-stakes goals, Peter Neill, who was an executive director with AT&T Wireless, hired me to engage engineering directors spread around the country in a series of strategic dialogues focused on accomplishing their goals and developing the leadership characteristics that Neill believed would define the success of his team.

When Peter took the reins of Transport Engineering, he found an organization that was divided into five regions, with little or no communication among them. Peter explained, “We were a collection of independent engineering teams accountable for common results, all with different road maps of achievement and varying degrees of successful implementation.”

And when it came to accountability, Transport Engineering had a reputation for missing deadlines, failing to deliver, and offering detailed excuses and reasons that put the blame on individuals and situations outside of Transport Engineering. Like Koko the gorilla, group members pointed the finger at others, never at themselves. One popular comment was “I/we knew this would be impossible. There was no way we could get all this done in the time frame we were given.”

Meanwhile, the organization had defined four key themes—measured results, speed, financial performance, and innovation—that described technical and financial success for the overall business. And achieving these, Neill saw, would require new and fresh dialogues across the business divisions.

During a kickoff session, I began by grounding the team in the principles and practices of Fierce Conversations, including an issue-preparation form that ensured all future discussions would hit the ground running. Then we identified specific high-level, measurable goals for the year, like financial accountability, system capacity and performance, national initiatives, tool development, and evolving network planning and engineering.

I asked the directors if they believed the goals were doable in the time frame they had been given, with the resources available. There was some gulping, but they agreed that yes, though the goals were a stretch, they believed they were possible. A sixty-day action plan was fleshed out, including a chart that clarified exactly who was going to do exactly what by exactly when.

Then we talked about accountability. What is it? How does it differ from responsibility? Who assigns it? What happens when it’s present? What happens when it’s absent? Why does it disappear? What is an issue of accountability confronting this team right now that is made worse by a failure of accountability? You know the drill.

We talked about their reputation as victims, hardly something to be proud of, and discussed the definition of fierce accountability, and then I forbade them (as much as anyone can forbid grown men) to point the finger at anyone other than themselves, going forward. Then I said:

Unless the world comes to an end or every bone in your body is broken in an accident, we are all counting on you to deliver what you’ve said you’ll deliver when you’ve said you’ll deliver it.

You’ve got fifteen minutes to stand up, walk around the room, and examine everything we’ve taped to the wall. Focus on the Who, What, When chart and in particular any item that has your name on it. When we reconvene, this will be your opportunity to tell us if you don’t believe it’s possible for you to do what’s on this chart by the time indicated. And if that’s the case, tell us what you would need to pull it off, so we can figure out how to give it to you, or else give us a different delivery date, a more realistic one given the real world in which you operate. Once you sign off on this chart and we leave this meeting, we hold you able to deliver what you’ve said you’ll deliver when you’ve said you’ll deliver it. We’ll meet again every other month, and we’ll begin each meeting by checking off the action items that were due. Then we’ll discuss anything that has changed since last we met, tackle the next set of issues on which you’d like input, and continue building out the plan.

Almost everyone changed at least one “by when” date, identified missing resources, and figured out how to get them. Then we took a solemn oath involving a dead chicken and some stump water. Okay, not really, but we did take an oath.

The team met for five additional sessions over the next twelve months. Team members explored and practiced leadership characteristics specific to the success of AT&T Wireless. Using the conversational models they had learned earlier, they interrogated reality, tackled their toughest challenges, designed strategies and road maps for key projects, developed a growing appreciation for the talents of individual team members, and outlined further collaboration needed to ensure that no member of the team would fail.

Neill was happy. “As a result of my team’s skill at engaging colleagues in ‘strategic conversations,’” he said, “the level of personal accountability across the organization drove our results.” The benefits, Neill proudly pointed out, were visible. “First and foremost, we …

· Exceeded four of our five annual goals. And met the fifth.

· Became more efficient, leading to greater than 25% same year improvement in our financial performance.

· Acquired the foundation required to support year-over-year improvements critical to our business success within the wireless industry.

· Gained cross-boundary collaboration, which allowed Transport Engineering to deliver connectivity in support of our next generation network six months ahead of schedule.

· Gained the skills we needed to play our particular business game at the next level.

· Learned ideas and techniques to use in our own teams, applying principles to staff conversations and conference calls.

· Know each other better. We listen to one another. We have a higher level of empathy and understanding.

· Share common goals. The program opened us up to new ideas. The coaching helped individuals and the entire team focus.”

Neill summarized, “My team can match any team. Now our goal is to drive what we’ve learned and how we’re operating together down into the organization. In an industry as growth oriented and competitive as ours, we can’t afford not to have conversations like this every day.”

Back to you and your world. It’s hard to work with someone who is invested in persuading you to buy their victim list. But there are certain things you shouldn’t do to break people out of this cycle. Don’t tell them to get a grip. Don’t avoid them. Don’t complain about them to others. Don’t get angry. Don’t tell them what they need to do and how to fix things. Don’t tell them that they’re delusional.

Remember, the victim cycle is fear based. A lot of the things we do to try to break others out of the victim cycle actually increase their fear, because we are essentially putting fire in the cave to force them out.

If you avoid people, the same thing occurs. Inclusion is a strong human need. Exclusion stimulates fear. Yet if we placate a victim, make allowances for him or her, others see that victims get treated better, so they may go into victim mode, too.

Whether we avoid or placate victims, the issues don’t go away. In fact, they will get worse. And for those of you who are parents, the worst thing you can do—assuming you want your children to live accountable lives—is to buy their victim list and build a cave for them that’s so attractive, so safe, that they’ll never want to leave.

Fierce leaders model accountability, and people follow their example. If you want your children to risk and challenge, you have to risk and challenge. You must model accountability right in front of them and hold them able.

A powerful and effective way to hold anyone able—child or adult—is to engage him or her in a Mineral Rights conversation, which accomplishes the four goals of all fierce conversations:

1. Interrogate reality

2. Provoke learning

3. Tackle tough challenges

4. Enrich relationships

In “Fierce Practice #2,” we used a version of Mineral Rights in an interview. Now we’ll modify it slightly and use it to break someone out of victim mode. The conversation allows us to mine for “gold” in the form of greater clarity, improved understanding, and impetus for action—and for change, when needed.

Let’s look at a classic Mineral Rights conversation and consider how it holds individuals able and points them toward personal accountability.


1. Identify the issue. If you notice that someone is in victim mode, ask him or her about it. Say something like, “You seem angry (sad, frustrated, withdrawn, et cetera). Please tell me what’s going on.” Your own context is very important here. Find the place within yourself that genuinely wants to hear.

2. Clarify the issue. Get very curious. The details aren’t always important. Listen for the real issue, because the problem named is the problem solved. It is important, therefore, to spend time in the problem-naming part of the conversation.

Though clarity will increase throughout the conversation, ask questions that will help your partner further clarify the issue for himself or herself. Take time to get the whole story. This venting can help to empty the person emotionally and make him or her more receptive to change.

The challenge here is to remain empathetic. This person is describing his or her list, and to him or her, it is very real. When people sense that you are empathetic, they are usually more open to possibilities.

Please note that there is a difference between empathy and sympathy. If you are sympathetic and placating, people often feel somewhat patronized. They might get defensive and/or lose respect for you if you readily buy their list. Remember, we love and hate people who buy our list. So convey empathy without buying the list.

Say things like, “I bet that’s hard. Sounds like a tough situation.” Validate the person’s reality, not his or her defense of it.

3. Determine current impact. The focus here is on current impact. You might ask, “How is this currently affecting you?” If your partner veers off track, bring him or her back: “Let’s stay focused on the current impact for a moment. I am also interested in who else and what else is currently being affected.”

This question is useful in breaking someone out of the victim cycle because the answers catalogue the prices that are currently being paid, reinforcing the importance of stepping up to resolve the issue. Ask, “What else?” until the list of prices is complete and robust.

There is now a second question that is very important: “When you consider all of the results you just catalogued, what do you feel?” Listen intently.

Hearing someone’s words is only the beginning. If we don’t also inquire about his or her emotions, it’s as if we are leaving our companion sitting in a car that is going nowhere because it has an empty gas tank. Emotions give the lit match something to ignite, propelling us into action.

During a Mineral Rights conversation, if your partner is not in touch with his or her emotions, he or she is in no immediate danger of doing anything differently … and tomorrow will be a lot like today.

Draw out your partner. You might say, “You say you’re frustrated (or angry or worried …). Say more about that, please.” Ask, “What else do you feel?”

4. Determine future implications. The focus now is on what’s likely to happen if this issue is not resolved. You could ask, “If you and I were talking six months or a year from today and nothing had changed regarding this issue, what might you be telling me?” Draw the person out: “What else could have happened?”

Then ask about emotions again: “When you consider that possible scenario, what do you feel?” This question requires someone to look at the long-term repercussions and heightens their resolve to take action.

5. Examine personal contribution to the issue. This is a critical part of this conversation because it points the person in the direction of accountability. Just a little opening will help. Simply ask, “Can you see any ways in which you have contributed to this situation?”

Many people are surprised, even offended, by this question. After all, they have just invested a fair amount of energy unfolding their impressive victim list for you—the long list of reasons why this bad thing has happened to them. They’ve pointed the finger at what or who is to blame, even named names. “He/she/it/they did it to me.” Plus, you’ve asked them what they feel, which suggests you are a compassionate person and now you’ve thrown a bucket of cold water on the conversation by asking a completely insensitive question that suggests they may have had something to do with this stinker of a story. Sometimes I detect a look of panic, as if the person is thinking, “Dang! I was so close to freedom, so close to getting out of this conversation with a new recruit to the blame game.”

Hang in there. Sit quietly and wait for a response, even if the wait is a very long one. If they say they don’t know what you mean, simply repeat the question.

If they say, “I don’t know,” persist by asking, “What would it be if you did know?” Obviously, tone of voice is important here. You aren’t being sarcastic or superior or threatening. You’re genuinely curious.

Let silence do the heavy lifting.

6. Describe the ideal outcome. This is the step I must resist rushing toward because of its powerful impact. This step really connects emotionally. I often say, “Let’s imagine this is no longer an issue. It’s resolved, completely, elegantly. What difference would that make?”

A negative view of the future creates fear. When the voices of fear are whispering in one ear, we need something whispering louder in the other. A strong vision of a positive future will do this. Once again, ask about the person’s emotions. Use the same question you asked in step 4: “When you imagine this possible scenario, what do you feel?”

7. Commit to action. This step seeks action, brings closure. Once someone considers constructive action, he or she has moved into the accountability cycle.

Ask, “Given the situation you’re in, as onerous and unfair as it seems, what is an action step you can take to turn things around?” Probe and push for clarity here, for a commitment. Have the person create a deadline for the action, the sooner the better. If you don’t think the solution he or she came up with will work, get curious. Say something like, “I don’t see how that will work. Will you tell me more about that?”

Ask how the person is going to create support: “Who can help you and how?” Remember, new behavior without support becomes extinct.

Ask, “When can I follow up with you?” Take your partner’s phone number or e-mail address and commit to following up with him or her once he or she has taken this step.

Thank your partner for his or her good work.

Keep your commitment and follow up with him or her!

I forgot to give you the secret rule regarding this conversation: NO declarative statements. NO advice. Questions only! And no fair using leading questions like “Have you considered trying …?”

This rule is incredibly difficult for most people to follow, because oh, how we love to give advice! But when you take someone through a Mineral Rights conversation, it’s essential not to give any advice until you are on the other side of step 7! Otherwise, you create dependency. If you tell someone what to do and how to do it, he or she will become dependent on you. The point of accountability is to empower the other person, not for you to become the new source of his or her power.

Besides, what you come up with may work for you, but may not work for the other person, and the more he or she comes up with the answers, the more he or she will own them. If you do have a suggestion or two, offer it at this time. Because you have listened, your partner will see you as wise, intelligent, and compassionate.

This conversation is so powerful, it has literally changed the course of people’s careers, marriages, lives.

This conversation is so powerful, it has literally changed the course of people’s careers, marriages, lives. I highly recommend that you ask someone to take you through a Mineral Rights conversation on an issue that is troubling you at work or at home.

Trust yourself to answer the questions you’ll be asked. The answers to your issue are in the room. You have them. Allow someone to assist you in unfolding them.

Don’t write anything down. Just show up authentically for this conversation.

Avoiding the traps Most of us are sorely tempted by common traps that are guaranteed to derail a Mineral Rights conversation. So don’t:

· discount your partner’s list (“That doesn’t sound so bad”);

· get caught up in his or her story, sympathize, or placate: “Oh, you poor thing!”;

· give advice (this is especially important for a victim, because victims are accustomed to the power being outside themselves);

· skip some steps and jump right to “What are you going to do about it?”;

· become judgmental (“What the heck were you thinking!”);

· top your partner’s victim story with one of your own: “Wow, that reminds me of something that happened to me!” Now it’s about you, not him or her.

Some other important reminders:

· Mineral Rights is not a race. When competitive people see a list of steps, they tend to figure, First to the end wins. Wrong. This conversation is about depth, not speed. Slow the conversation down so you can help your partner gain real insight.

· Make sure your motivation is to help, not further a hidden agenda.

· Dig deep—”What else?”

· Find the neutral place from which you can remain empathetic without judgment.

· Let silence do the heavy lifting.

· Listen, for what is not being said, as well as what is being said.

· Your partner should be doing most of the talking, overhearing him-or herself thinking out loud, saying things he or she didn’t know he or she knew.

· No matter what the reporting structure may be, consider this a conversation between equals.

· Bring nothing but yourself and the purity of your attention to this conversation.


Even if you’re convinced the conversation went well, check in with the other person to see how he or she felt it went. The conversation wasn’t merely a task on your to-do list. There’s a lot riding on the outcome.

I suggest waiting a day to check in with someone. While he or she will, hopefully, have had some insights during the conversation, once he or she has had a chance to sleep on it, the penny may truly drop.

A quick phone call or e-mail could say, “Just wanted you to know that I appreciated your candor and hard work during our conversation yesterday. Now that you’ve had a chance to sleep on it, please let me know how you felt it went and if you had any additional insights. You can count on me to follow up with you on your action step. Again, thank you for talking with me. I hold you able to take it from here. I’ll be cheering from the sidelines.”


At this point, you might be wondering if the Mineral Rights conversation is too formulaic, if it would seem awkward, unnatural. For example, might your partner dig in his or her heels and refuse to answer some of your probing questions or feel that you are playing shrink or being inappropriate?

You are not playing shrink. I’m not a shrink and wouldn’t presume to tread on that territory. And while a few of my colleagues, friends, or family members have felt a bit uncomfortable from time to time, I don’t believe anyone has ever felt I was being inappropriate. Bold? Yes. Fierce? Of course. Inappropriate? No.

Still, it may seem awkward the first few times you practice Mineral Rights, so practice it at home with your partner or a friend. Ask, “How was your day?” If your partner’s day was lousy, out will come the story, and you’re launched. Step one. Many people have reported that when they practiced Mineral Rights at home, they had the best conversation they’d had with their partner in a decade. Once you’ve done Mineral Rights three times, it will feel natural, and, more important, you’ll frequently be blown away by the results.

I believe this model will work 95 percent of the time, with patience and practice. But no one is perfect; even though I’m pretty good at it, I still allow the conversation to derail a bit from time to time. So I go back to the person, acknowledge what I noticed about my role in lessening the effectiveness of the conversation, and let him or her know I’ll try to do better next time.

This is me modeling accountability. I would receive low marks in accountability if I told myself or anyone else, “The conversation was a bust. That person was impossible to talk to!”

Taking It to the Organization

If you want to build the practice of fierce accountability into the fabric of your organization, I suggest you:

1. Schedule and conduct Mineral Rights conversations with each of your direct reports. Let them know that you’ll ask them what’s the most important thing the two of you should be talking about. Remember to ask about their contributions to the issue they put on the table, and don’t give advice.

2. Schedule a brief team meeting each morning or each week to ensure shared clarity about priorities and time lines. Telling someone “This is a priority” leaves a lot up to interpretation. A better communication would be “I’d like you to complete this by the end of day Thursday. We’ll review it Friday morning.” People can’t hold themselves accountable to deadlines if clear deadlines haven’t been set.

3. Be clear with everyone about WHY the things on their to-do list are a priority. An associate could easily think and possibly say, “I haven’t done much about this because I don’t understand why I should. What’s at stake? What’s the bottom line? What business issue does this solve? What impact will this have?” Answers to those questions raise people’s level of accountability.

4. At the team meeting, ask each team member to give a succinct report on what he or she has accomplished and what’s on his or her to-do list for the coming week.

5. Stop “victim” conversations (“If this or that were different, our lives would be easier”) by saying something like, “I assume you are all aware that we are acting like victims around this topic.” That will shift the conversation from what they can’t do to what they can do. Encourage people to have the internal conversations they need to change and create better outcomes for themselves. “Think about what you can do to change or improve things.”

6. Express ample, public appreciation for getting stuff done despite obstacles!

7. If someone is lagging, ask at the team meeting, in front of everyone else (yes, in front of everyone!), “What’s your plan to catch up?” Instead of pointing a finger, have a private come-to-Buddha meeting with those who regularly fail to execute.

Personal Action Plan

The movie The Departed opens with Jack Nicholson saying, in his listen-up-you-piece-of-shit-because-I’m-only-going-to-say-this-once voice, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”

“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”
—Jack Nicholson in The Departed

Yes, his tone is menacing and his hands are drenched in blood for most of the movie, but he had the right idea. The environment is all about you; in fact, it already is a product of you.

Personal progress isn’t a cakewalk. Which is why my goal for you, as presumptive as that may seem, is for you to positively and indelibly shape the environment of any company, team, room—whether boardroom, conference room, or living room—into which you walk. I’d like others to sense that “someone is here!” I want people to feel that way about you and to be happy in your company.

To sum it up, I want you to spend most of your time being you on your best day. Not a version of someone else, but YOU, awake, accountable, in motion! And like all practices, accountability is an inside job.

Write down your top personal and professional goals for the next thirty to ninety days, which you formed as a result of reading this chapter. For starters, how ‘bout getting your stuff done when you said you would! Remember, you can’t hope that others will choose accountability if you’re not modeling it yourself. So if things aren’t getting done, ask yourself, “What part of this failure to execute has my name on it?” If you haven’t completed a project assigned to you and the due date has come and gone, your cavalier statement to the team that you’re “still working on that” doesn’t cut it. Want others to deliver on time? Lead by example.

Here’s what a good action plan might look like:

1. Begin by having a fierce conversation with yourself: “To what degree do I model accountability for my colleagues and family members? What’s on my victim list? When things haven’t gone well, what reasons and excuses do I often point to? What is this teaching those around me? What am I winning?” Be specific about your goals and the actions you’ll take.

2. Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Since there is no connection without authenticity, be extremely attentive to your level of honesty in all your conversations.

3. Find someone to support you in modeling accountability. Without support, most people find it difficult to move out of victim mode, into accountability, and stay there. Ask someone to let you know if he or she sees you being “right” in a destructive way.

4. If you have been passive about your career progression, stop it! It’s up to you to further your career. Get specific about your career aspirations. What’s out there in your organization that you might be good at? Take advantage of your transferable skills. Where could you add value? Declare where you want to go, and ask for honest feedback. Ask your boss to advocate for you.

5. If your boss isn’t willing to advocate for you, ask what you need to do differently to get a wholehearted yes from him or her. And then get to work on yourself.

6. Add names and topics to your “Conversations I Need to Have” list at the back of this book. And have them.


The progress of the world actually does depend on our progress as individuals, now. It’s true for me, it’s true for you. It’s true for prime ministers and presidents, for the young woman (girl, really) who took my order at Chimayo Mexican Restaurant on Orcas Island, for the Maasai herding goats near Kilimanjaro, for the craftsmen who built my tree house, for the FedEx guy, for the woman at the help desk with CenturyTel. It’s true for the priest, the cop, the robber, the saint in training, the new parent, the insurance salesman, the snake expert at the pet store, the guys throwing fish at Pike Place Market.

On a metaphysical plane, each of us is, indeed, the center of the universe, and all that we think, feel, and do impacts everyone else. Gets a little tricky, but you’ve been exposed to this idea if you have paid any attention to quantum mechanics, watched What the Bleep Do We Know!?, have any leanings toward Buddhism, or have simply been noticing what’s going on around you.

Here’s a footnote from Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan: “Once, in Rome, I went to a church, San Clemente, also known as Saint Clement’s Basilica. When you enter the church, you enter a medieval church with eighteenth-century additions—a Baroque basilica. When you go down a level, you see that the upper basilica was built on an early Christian church, with frescoes dating to the ninth century. That church was, in turn, built on the site of a mithraeum, a third-century temple for the cult of the god Mithras, which revolved around the life-giving slaying of a bull. (A major feast day of the popular cult of Mithras was December 25, and the cult competed with Christianity for popularity.) You take an ancient set of steps down into the mithraeum, and when you get there—it’s a dark, dank, stone-walled, basement-like place—you see in the floor a stream running beneath a metal grate. When you do, you realize that the mithraeum was built on a Republican estate, which was most likely built where it was built because it was alongside a stream, a stream that was probably beautiful at the time, not that I personally have anything against streams piped through basements. My point is this: religions built on religions, cultures on cultures, cities on cities, just the way one rat moves into the previous rat’s old rat hole—or hole of any kind, really.”

In other words, what we do can leave lasting impacts greater than we can ever know. Sure, the world changes—layers are built upon layers upon layers, until the original structure is barely recognizable—but without the foundation, progress can never occur.

Let’s conclude with a wonderful poem by Hafiz that gets to the heart of the notion of personal accountability. In summary, you’re it!




As a myriad things and

Playing a game

Of tag

Has kissed you and said,

“You’re it—

I mean, you’re Really IT!”


It does not matter

What you believe or feel

For something wonderful,

Major-league Wonderful

Is someday going