In this article, Former USAF officer and friend L/C Vaught breaks down to me exactly how I can take effective action while owning my failures to become a capable leader. This is what he wrote to me:
These two words; Action and Accountability, very simply cannot be overstated when it comes to being considered capable. In my last article I gave examples of the need for effective, immediate action under duress as part of the formula for any capable man. Now I would like to expand on the idea of ‘action’ in a more general sense and then couple that with the need to be ‘accountable’ for the action taken.
These two principles of behavior go hand in hand and yet are often separated by excuses, denial, or finger pointing particularly if the course of action taken becomes a failure, embarrassment, or excessively costly. Before I elaborate on the interconnectedness of these two behaviors, let’s discuss the behaviors individually.
Taking action is a simple enough concept to understand, and yet is often avoided for a variety of reasons. A few of the more common reasons are fear of failure, laziness, lack of authorization, or plain incompetence to effectively act upon a given problem. I am not referring to ‘critical action’ which is immediate in nature as a response to potentially dangerous situations (see previous article), but rather taking ‘action’ in response to problems that need solving, or objectives that must be obtained. The time element for this discussion is not as critical and while this article generally references the work environment, it is equally applicable to the social or recreational environment.
Any good leader, or supervisor of an organization quickly figures out who the “talkers” are and who the “doers” are. Additionally, those same leaders/supervisors also know or quickly learn who those individuals are that perform actions with positive outcomes as opposed to the few who take ineffective or deleterious action. We have all, at one time or another, been in an organization or collective gathering of club or team members and found ourselves in a meeting, discussing problems within the organization. At some point someone identifies a specific problem followed by the statement: “Somebody should do something about it”. The “it” being whatever that specific problem is. There is an old adage one of my favorite commanders used to say. “I don’t want to simply hear problems, I want to hear the problem followed by a proposed solution offered by someone capable and willing to implement the solution”. The shorter version of that adage is; “Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution”.
So what does it take to be part of the solution? First and foremost, you need to be willing to TAKE ACTION! To be a “doer” rather than a “talker”. Nearly anyone engaged in the operations of an organization can identify problems or requirements needing attention, but only those possessing initiative and effective capabilities will jump in, roll up their sleeves and take the bull by the horns. So what characteristics or personality traits tend to prevent any individual from taking action and how do you overcome the impediments? Here are some of the more common impediments and ways to overcome them:
This unfortunately exists when a person either feels disenfranchised, is simply uninterested, or unmotivated to solve the problem, or is genuinely averse to work in general. The disenfranchised individual may need to engage the leadership one on one in order to re-ignite the fire and be inspired or properly motivated to act. The catch 22 here is that a lazy worker, often, will not take the first step to engage the leadership, which then perpetuates the syndrome of inaction. A good leader/manager will, if he or she sees potential, engage the lazy worker to spark the fire in order to get more productivity/creativity/initiative out of the lazy worker. If you are having trouble getting motivated, start by visualizing or quantifying the solution.
Then take the next step and start the process to enact the solution. If the problem seems a bit too boring for your talent, simply remember that by solving the less interesting problems, we show ourselves as capable doers and often open the door to being offered the more intriguing problems to solve. If you are the rare individual who just doesn’t like working in general, it might be time to find that long lost rich aunt who is looking for someone, anyone, with a pulse to bequeath her fortune to. For those of you living and working in the more common, results oriented world, you will experience much more success by being the capable one who can use your talent, ingenuity and energy to solve the less interesting, somewhat boring problems, so that you do become the one called on to solve the more interesting problems. This action oriented approach, in turn, keeps you engaged and interested in your work and perpetuates the “syndrome of success”. In this scenario, action leads to success which begets further success.
Lack of authority
Another impediment to action is not having the authority over the assets or processes required to solve the problem. This occasionally shows itself in poorly managed organizations where an employee is saddled with the responsibility of a particular problem area, but not given the authority required to own the process required to solve the problem. In this case, step up and lobby your supervisors to grant you authority over the process and all those required to complete the solution. You may have to give a notional guarantee of success in order to motivate your supervisor to place his trust in you enough to give you full control. Trust is a risk. Some supervisors are very risk averse, which is often why they don’t want to release control to a subordinate. However, if you prove yourself trustworthy and capable, it will go a long way toward being granted broader authority over tasks assigned. If unable to attain the authority, then it might be wiser to bow out and suggest the action be implemented by someone who will have the authority over the process. Don’t simply give up early because you have inadequate authority. Try and solve the inadequate authority problem first, and then tackle the solution to the problem. The point here is take action! First to secure authority, and second to solve the problem.
Fear of failure
Confidence in your ability to tackle problems grows each time you successfully solve them. You are going to have a failure now and again. Don’t let your failures paralyze you. If you do, you may likely fall in line with the timid souls who are much more likely to be “talkers” rather than “doers”. Instead, learn from your mistakes and move on. If you don’t have the skills to solve the problem, find someone who does and enlist their help or guidance. (Better yet, gain the skills through a little on-the-job training or extra-curricular training. See paragraph below.) These behaviors tend to give you more confidence in your ability to successfully create solutions and solve problems. You then are viewed as a doer instead of a talker.
Lack of competence act
If you have been given a project to complete or a problem to solve, but lack the competence to succeed, then your solution lies with yet another action. In this case your action must first be to gain the competence required. If this is not possible for whatever reason, then you are honor-bound to recuse yourself from the assignment, even if it highlights a short coming in your skill set. Do this early so minimum time is lost or assets wasted on faulty or incompetent action. You will be more highly regarded to capture this problem early and act to fix it by either gaining the requisite competence or finding a more suitable replacement. Unless you lied about your capabilities to begin with, your forthrightness will be appreciated and most likely rewarded in some small way. Perhaps continuing education or on the job training to further develop your skills and capabilities. Don’t sit idly by and wait for the chickens to come home to roost in the form of a glaring failure. Once again, act to mitigate the consequences of the mismatch between your capabilities and the desired outcome.
The bottom line here is that each of the above impediments to success can be dealt with and overcome if you are simply willing to act.
The partner of ‘action’ in all situations, and the second half of this article is ‘accountability’. Accountability is the glue that makes up the integrity of all our actions. To work on a given problem or solution, followed by actionable implementation of the solution, requires full ownership of the actions taken to solve the problem. Be accountable for those actions! Nothing is more annoying and counterproductive than a lame excuse for a failure. As discussed above, failures will occur from time to time. By owning the failure, we create the incentive to fix the failure because we recognize the failure was of our own making. Our quiet shame or embarrassment at failure, while very manageable, is often a powerful motivator to ensure follow up action is taken to turn our failures into successes.
If however, the failure is compounded by an inability to own the failure, there is no incentive to fix the failure. This situation allows the failure to fester and create the “malaise of mediocrity” where our failures may never be rectified and a sub-standard environment is allowed to prevail. This then becomes very deleterious to further progress with success. We have all heard valid and invalid alibis or excuses for failures and at times there are valid excuses for failures. “The dog really did eat the paper”! Even those failures are generally owned by those with great integrity and problem solving skills. (I should have made a backup copy, or not used only paper to begin with) If the failure is caused by something you could control, but failed to either anticipate or positively act on, own that failure and then “right” the “wrong”. If the failure is caused by something you could not have predicted, or something you had no control over, then learn, adapt, and gain control over that which caused the failure and move on. Don’t settle for the “it’s not my fault” approach and look the other way. Act to fix the failure! It takes more guts and character to own and fix your failures than it does to reap the rewards of your successes. You place yourself among those with very high integrity when you are accountable for all your actions. Not just the actions that make you look good.
If you happen to be the leader of a project that has failed due to a subordinates’ failure, always remember that the leader is ultimately responsible for the good, the bad and the ugly. While you may need to remove the subordinate in order to move on and fix the problem, you still are the ultimate owner of the failure and must communicate your understanding of that to those whom you represent or on whose behalf you are acting. This maturity shows both great character and solid leadership.
In the end, whenever possible, be the maker of your destiny by taking action, when called for, to improve upon your surroundings at all times. Then be accountable for those actions you take. By behaving in this manner you will reap great rewards and show yourself to be a most capable man.
Take Action, be Accountable, and be capable!