One of the benefits of the recent interest in inter-professional education (IPE) is an expanded definition of a successful professional, adding to the traditional characteristics of knowledge and skill the abilities to communicate and collaborate with one’s own peers as well as members of other professions.
Today’s successful professionals must reflect on and learn from their and others’ experiences, combine their professional expertise with empathic understanding of others’ perspectives, articulate their research and views in a clear and well-supported manner, critically assess the scholarly research of others, be open to creative and innovative means of problem-solving, and exercise leadership in their professions and communities.
Many of the competencies we expect from professionals have traditionally been nurtured through the liberal arts. At a time when the return on investment to the graduate and an institution’s ability to generate revenue take center stage, many liberal arts programs find themselves threatened and marginalized. Reframing IPE to be more inclusive by integrating the liberal arts into professional education can help professionals of all stripes—from doctors to dentists to architects—overcome the limits of specialized training, which results too often in knowledge without understanding, skills without character, individual achievement without community engagement, and career success without personal well-being. The liberal arts provide a foundation that underlies all professions (and careers in general), consisting of critical thinking abilities, communication skills, intellectual curiosity, and a love of learning.
Inherent in the concept of a profession is a duty owed, a duty that is informed not only by the body of knowledge that defines the profession or discipline, but by moral character. Richard Freeland, former president of Northeastern University and current Commissioner of Higher Education for Massachusetts, states well how the liberal arts can complement professional education to shape character: “We should help [students] see how the work they do can promote personal growth, intellectual adventure, social purpose, and moral development. We should show them how the values of intellectual honesty, personal integrity, and tolerance can strengthen the institutions in which they will work. And we should help them build bridges between the intellectual concerns they encounter in philosophy, literature, and history courses and the decisions they will have to make as business leaders, lawyers, and government officials. Properly conceived, practice-oriented education can provide at least as powerful a moral education as any purely academic study of ethics.”
National organizations are recognizing the important role played by the liberal arts in preparing graduates with 21st-century skills. In a 2013 report based on a survey of private sector and nonprofit organization employers in many fields, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) emphasized that graduates’ ability to enter, and especially to advance, in today’s economy depends on a skill set beyond technical knowledge. Nearly all those surveyed agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important” than field of study, while more than nine in ten said “it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity for continued new learning.” Furthermore, more than three in four employers surveyed “said they want colleges to place more emphasis on helping students develop five key learning outcomes . . . : critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.”
The liberal arts, once considered essential learning for a person to take his or her place in society, should have a fundamental role in shaping not just undergraduate education but graduate-level professional education to meet these employer expectations. Yet for a variety of reasons, many schools and programs in the liberal arts have become as insular and specialized as professional education. Ironically, in many places the arts from which we learn to think and communicate, the dialogue through which we explore our humanity, are becoming irrelevant to professional education. IPE is a movement intent on changing that dynamic and building bridges across the professions for the greater good.
No place is quite as ripe for a good game of buzzword bingo as your typical office or department meeting. Managers and other leaders sling around the buzzwords and buzz phrases like Spiderman slinging his web, and for much the same reason—in the hope that something will stick.
In an occasional series on this blog, I’d like to examine some of the more popular leadership buzzwords. My point is not that these terms are meaningless; indeed, they often describe processes and qualities that are vital to successful organizations. But in many cases they have been rendered essentially meaningless by overuse. People hear them so many times, in such a variety of contexts—often used incorrectly—that they eventually begin to tune them out, seeing them as little more than squares on a buzzword bingo card. And thus the terms themselves lose whatever impact they might have had.
In this re-examination, I’d like to talk about what these “buzzwords” actually mean and what they have to do with good leadership. My hope is that leaders will learn to use them more selectively, that they will teach those they lead what the terms actually mean, by communication and example, and thus the terms themselves will become more meaningful and effective.
Today’s buzzword is “accountability,” which we hear all the time these days in a variety of contexts, from politics to education, from the board room to the locker room. But what exactly does it mean? I’m not even sure the people who use it always know, and that certainly doesn’t help the rest of us take away whatever it is we’re supposed to take away.
One of the main problems with the word is that it’s vaguely threatening, carrying with it the suggestion of possible punishment. The phrase “people need to be held accountable” certainly has the ring of truth, but as a practical matter, how does that work? Specifically, what will happen to people who, having been held accountable, are judged to have failed in some way? Will they be fired? Publicly ridiculed? Have their pay docked? Be re-educated? In many cases, no one really knows, including the people making the threats. Much of the time, as we’ve all witnessed, nothing whatsoever happens to those people. And so the term itself just goes in one ear and out the other.
The other issue arises from the obvious question, “accountable to whom?” In other words, if people need to be held accountable, who is doing the holding? Again, when we don’t know the answer to that, it’s hard for us to take the whole idea of accountability seriously.
In some industries, like sales, all of this is very cut and dried. People have agreed-upon targets, and if they don’t hit those targets, then they face very specific consequences, usually related to compensation. That sort of cause-and-effect relationship, while not for the faint of heart, at least lends a great deal of urgency to the concept of accountability.
The same is true in sports. If you’re the starting left tackle, and your quarterback keeps getting sacked from the blind side, then you’re not going to be the starting left tackle for very long. You might not even be in the league very long, unless you find a way to up your game.
Accountable? You bet. And that sort of clarity may be the reason sports metaphors are so prevalent in leadership development books and seminars. (That, and a lot of the people who write those books and lead those seminars are ex-jocks themselves.)
But what about a knowledge-based industry like education or technology or consulting, where processes tend to be more varied and outcomes more vague—where there are a lot more variables at work than one individual’s performance. Yes, we can judge teachers by their students’ test scores—but how many other factors impact those scores, like students’ home life, administrative support, and test bias? In situations like that, how exactly do we hold people accountable?
It’s also in those kinds of situations, by the way, where the term “accountability” takes on the most threatening overtones. If you’re doing the best you can, perhaps even the best that anyone could do under the circumstances, yet you’re not getting the desired result, how do you escape the implication that it’s somehow you’re fault? Imagine for a moment if Thomas Edison had had someone holding him “accountable” for all those failed attempts to produce the light bulb. I might be typing this by candlelight.
And yet, someone did hold Edison accountable: Edison. He kept trying, despite his failures, because he had certain expectations of himself that he was determined to meet. We might call that “self-directedness,” and it is a powerful form of accountability—the most powerful, in fact.
Let me suggest, then, that there are several levels of accountability, in descending order of importance or effectiveness. The first, as we’ve just seen, is accountability to self. As noted, this is the most effective form of accountability, and it suggests that leaders can go a long way toward “holding people accountable” by hiring people who already, by nature, tend to hold themselves to a high standard. Even workers who are doing a bad job can sometimes game the system and get acceptable performance reviews. But for those who are always intent on doing their best, whatever the circumstances, that isn’t enough. Obviously, those are the very best people in any organization.
Leading people like that sounds easy—like any manager’s dream. But that isn’t necessarily the case. It first requires a great deal of trust on the part of the leader. It also requires a fair amount of tolerance to failure, in an environment where it’s understood that repeated failures are often a necessary prelude to ultimate success.
This is where that great old piece of advice, “hire the best people, then get out of their way” comes into play. Truly self-directed individuals will not respond well to micro-managing, while attempts to “hold them accountable” by looking over their shoulder all the time and constantly correcting every perceived mistake will likely backfire.
And by the way, in addition to hiring self-directed people to begin with, leaders can also foster this mindset within their organization, in two ways. First, they can model self-directed behavior by holding themselves to a very high standard and then striving to meet that standard consistently. And second, they can be very open about having trust in the people they lead. That may at times produce disappointment, but in my experience, most of the time, people will rise to the occasion and strive to be worthy of that trust.
The second level of accountability is accountability to others within the organization, specifically fellow employees or team members. Here’s where sports metaphors might be apt, because just as the quarterback counts on his left tackle to protect his blindside, and the pitcher counts on her infield to scoop up ground balls, so members of an organization often count on each other to contribute their fair share of the work to the project at hand. Very often, one person can’t do his or her job unless others have done theirs. And even in fields where people tend to work more or less autonomously, like higher education, faculty members still count on each other to maintain standards and uphold the reputation of the department, for the good of all.
It’s worth noting, in this context, that the root word of “accountability” is “count,” meaning people can count on you to do your part. Even if most of us aren’t always as self-driven as we ought to be, sometimes just knowing that others are relying on you to get the job done is enough to push you to give your best effort. No one wants to look bad in front of their peers or feel they let the team down.
The final level of accountability, of course, is the leader—the boss or manager or dean or whatever. In a well-run and successful organization, problems rarely get this far, because they’ve been handled already at one of the lower levels. But when they do, then it is up to the leader to address them—to hold the person accountable.
This is where “accountability” can sometimes become punitive. But that should be a last resort. Usually, it doesn’t have to be that way. Most of the time, failures can become teachable moments, as the leader seeks to mold and develop people rather than merely punish them. This is still a form of accountability, because no one likes to be called in on the carpet, even if it’s for a lesson rather than a lecture or (worse) a dressing down. But the person is more likely to go away from that encounter resolved to do better in the future, rather than feeling angry and resentful.
The key, for leaders, is to use the term “accountability” more specifically and more accurately, and to communicate what it means in context both verbally and by example. When people know exactly what they’re being held accountable for, who is doing the holding, and what that means for them on a practical level, then the concept of accountability is more likely to be a motivator.
Otherwise, it’s just an empty buzzword.
(Note: The following post is an excerpt from The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders: Unlocking Your Leadership Potential—specifically, from Chapter 6: Honesty. It has been edited slightly for this format.)
The words “integrity” and “honesty” are often used interchangeably. However, we believe there is a lot more to integrity than simply telling the truth, as important as that is. We like to think of the word “integrity” as it’s used in engineering, in reference to a structure such as a bridge or an airplane.
“Structural integrity” refers to the ability of a structure to manage the load placed upon it and resist the failure that occurs through fatigue, fracture, or deformation. The Oxford English Dictionary, in addition to defining “integrity” as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles,” also offers the following definition: “the condition of being unified, unimpaired, or sound in construction; internal consistency or lack of corruption.”
In other words, integrity in an object is the state of being what that object essentially is. The flying machine actually flies, and it remains aloft as its wings continue to function according to design. The bridge holds firm, spanning the gulf as it was meant to do, perpetually facilitating passage from one side to the other.
If we apply that same definition to a person, then integrity means being what you essentially are at your core, being true to yourself—or rather, to your self, that being who is really you, stripped of all pretense and social camouflage. We are convinced that you (like everyone else) have the seeds of virtue within you. Integrity, then, in its purest sense, means nurturing those seeds and allowing them to grow, as over time you become the person you were meant to be—the person that, in a sense, you already are.
Let’s go back to those engineering terms. Note that structural integrity involves withstanding external pressures. Likewise, being true to yourself means having the ability to resist any onslaught against your essential character.
Here we must recall our discussion in Chapter 1 about values, those deep-seated beliefs about what is right, what is wrong, and what is most important. One of your values, for example, may be the very thing we have just been talking about: the belief that you should tell the truth. Such values are an integral part of the essential you.
Yet you will constantly, in both your professional and your personal life, face situations that cause you to question those values—or even worse, tempt you to abandon them. You also will encounter individuals who want you to compromise or sacrifice your values, usually so they can gain something for themselves, although they may very well offer you something in return.
Integrity, as we are defining it in this chapter, means that you have the inner strength—the structural integrity—to withstand such attacks without breaking down and becoming something less than what you really are. Just as the bridge stands fast against tide and wind, you remain true to yourself, regardless of the forces operating upon you.
Another word we may not always think of as connected with integrity, but which is included in the OED definition, is “sound.” That is instructive, because the word is commonly applied to people as well as structures: we often speak of someone as a “sound” individual. But what does that mean? It means that the person is level-headed and clear-thinking. That he or she has good judgment. That this person can be trusted to give good advice or complete some important task efficiently and effectively.
No doubt we would all like for our coworkers, not to mention our superiors, to describe us as “sound” individuals. But perhaps we can best understand what it means to be sound by examining its opposite—which brings us to the final element of the OED definition: “internal consistency or lack of corruption.” The analogy that springs to mind immediately involves computer files. When a virus attacks a hard drive, it corrupts the files, so they are no longer what they were. We cannot trust the corrupted files, either to reflect the original material or not to damage other files.
We intend to discuss more about external consistency—being perceived by others as being who you say you are and doing what you say you are going to do—a little later in this chapter. Here, however, the emphasis is on internal consistency; that is, on remaining true within yourself to what you most deeply believe, on being who you really are, at your core. Corruption, in this sense, is what happens when that core is eaten away: when your words and your actions do not conform to your most cherished values.
That kind of corruption may not be visible to others because they may not even be aware of your values. They may not know what you believe or what you tell yourself you believe, which is why corruption is so insidious. Abandoning your core principles when no one else even knows those principles exist or what they are is easy to rationalize.
But you know. That is why integrity is such an important aspect of honesty: because it relies on telling the truth—consistently, even brutally, if necessary—to the person who needs to hear it most: yourself. As Lord Polonius says to Laertes in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true/ And it must follow, as the night the day/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Leadership often comes down to making decisions. As President Harry S. Truman so famously put it, for leaders,“The buck stops here.”
But in many cases, leadership is more about enabling and empowering others to make decisions, for a variety of reasons: because they’re closer to the situation, because they have more expertise, or simply because they need to learn and grow from the experience.
That’s why exceptional leaders often take a step back and let others call the shots. They’re humble enough to admit they don’t have all the answers, trusting enough to turn over the reins when necessary, and wise enough to know when that is.
When leaders fail to delegate appropriately—which includes not only empowering people to make decisions but giving them the necessary authority to execute those decisions—the results can be problematic, if not catastrophic. A couple of stories should serve to illustrate my point.
My wife works as a volunteer for a local charitable organization, charged with carrying out a variety of tasks related to community education. An intelligent, well-educated, self-directed woman, she has a great deal of responsibility in this position—which is to say that a large number of people are counting on her to get certain things done in a timely manner.
But she has virtually no authority whatsoever. She can fulfill her assignments only by persuading, cajoling, and maybe a little brow-beating every now and then. She manages, because she’s quite good at persuading and cajoling, which is probably why they asked her to take this position in the first place. But she often finds herself in frustratingly awkward situations, and occasionally things don’t get done that really needed to get done, in order for the organization to function properly, because she has no real power to make them happen.
Meanwhile, the people above her in the organization, who do have the power (which is to say, the authority) to make things happen, all too frequently do not do their part. She has to rely on them for the authority she doesn’t have, and many times they fail to come through.
So here’s our first take-away: One of the worst things you can do as a leader is put your people in a position where they have a great deal of responsibility but very little authority. Giving people responsibility is fine, not to mention necessary. You literally couldn’t do everything yourself even if you tried (and some of you, I know, do try).
But you must also give them a measure of authority commensurate with the responsibilities they’re expected to carry out—even if that means giving up some of your own authority in that situation (and it very well may). At the very least, if actually ceding some of your authority is impossible without blurring certain lines, as is sometimes the case, then you need to back up their decision-making with your own authority.
Otherwise, you’re just setting them up for failure.
Another story: Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time with an old friend of mine, a former high-ranking military officer, now retired and working as a civilian consultant to the Department of Defense. He holds a high security clearance, commanded forces in both Gulf Wars, and has played an important role in the War on Terror.
Obviously, he had to be very circumspect in what he told me, but he did share one thing that I found extremely instructive, in terms of leadership development.
He said that, on at least two occasions that he knows of, the entire command structure of ISIS was gathered in one place. In both cases, U.S. forces in theater knew the meetings were going on and knew the exact location. But before they could strike, the operation had to be approved at the highest level. Unfortunately, by the time the request went all the way up the chain of command and the go-ahead came back down, the meeting had ended and all the ISIS commanders were gone.
“In my view, it’s not the rules of engagement that are the problem,” he told me, referencing a frequent complaint among many that our soldiers have been hamstrung by their leaders' approach to fighting the war. “The rules of engagement are fine. We just need to have people who are empowered to make decisions closer to the source.”
So here’s our second take-away: Effective leaders avoid long chains of command. It’s tempting to set up the organization that way--with yourself at the top, of course, ultimately making all the decisions. But if your organization is even moderately large or complex, that simply won’t work. You’ll miss out on great opportunities. You must empower you commanders on the ground, so to speak—your mid-level managers and VP’s, sometimes even the rank and file—to make snap decisions and carry them out right where they are, close to the action.
That means occasionally they’ll mess up. And I do understand that our military really does not want to “mess up” something like an air strike, taking out a school full of children because they thought it was a warehouse full of ISIS commanders. Fortunately, the decisions your people make probably won’t have such potentially dire consequences.
The trick is to hire the best people you can, train them well, and then trust them to make the decisions they need to make in order to do their jobs. Give them the authority to execute those decisions, and then back them up. And when the decision does fall to you—when the buck actually stops at your desk—listen to the people closest to the situation and go with their recommendations whenever possible.
For someone who has climbed the leadership ladder probably by controlling every situation as much as possible, that can sometimes be a scary proposition. But the alternative, over the long haul, is organizational stagnation and entropy.