Leadership Coaching Tip: Responsibility, Accountability and Leadership

Russ Volckmann

Russ VolckmannTwo concepts that have been central to the conversation about management, at least since the work of Chester Barnard, are Responsibility and Accountability. But let’s consider these terms, particularly in the context of leadership coaching.

Here is one account of Peter Drucker’s treatment of these concepts:

On our return to the classroom Peter began to talk about responsibilities and accountability, not just of managers, but of employees as well. The idea, as I remember it, was that everyone is responsible in one way or another for the success of an enterprise, and that it followed that everyone concerned had to be held accountable for what he was responsible for.

Drucker used executive salaries as his prime example. He said that executive salaries at the top were clearly out of line with the responsibilities of those holding these positions. He said that the ratios of the compensation of American top managers to the lowest-paid workers were the highest in the world. In addition, he said that this difference wasn’t slight, but differed by magnitudes and that we would end up paying a tremendous price for this. I don’t believe that Peter was specific in quoting ratios, but I do know that by one analysis, the ratio of average CEO compensation in the U.S. to average pay of a non-management employee in the U.S. hit a high in 2001 of 525 to one.[1] Drucker’s recommendation was that the ratio needed to be something less than 20 to one.

He went on to debunk the main arguments for such pay differentials: that top executives deserved these salaries due to the performance of the corporations they headed, or that such salaries were necessary to attract the most qualified executives. He stated flatly that they were nonsense.

He pointed out that top executives in many corporations were paid these ridiculous salaries even when their documented performance was far below par or even as they drove the organizations for which they were responsible into serious financial problems or even bankruptcy.

As far as these salaries being needed to attract the most qualified executives, he gave us examples of several well-known companies which were performing very well, but whose chief executives were paid much more modest salaries. The only one I can recall now was Robert Townsend, who had been president of Avis-Rent-A-Car. He was well-known for instituting the “We Try Harder” advertising campaign several years earlier and had had a major effect on Avis’ success during his tenure as president.


Drucker held that responsible management was the alternative to tyranny. And he may have been right. As coaches we may have our own views about these terms. And we may engage them in our work on leadership coaching. But be careful! There is a potential coaching trap.

It is not our beliefs, assumptions or perspectives on what the roles of these concepts are for leaders in organizations and societies. It is our role to support managers and leaders in gaining clarity about how these concepts apply to their roles. That may seem obvious, but this is one of those traps we need to avoid. This does not mean that we don’t attend to these issues in our work with clients. But it does mean that terms such as these often carry a lot of baggage—such as assumptions about self and others, values about what is moral and ethical, entrapments by cultural norms and organizational or social structures.

Supporting those who anticipate leading by stepping into a leader role as defined by their own expectations and those of stakeholders is what this coaching is about. Teasing out such expectations is an important way to peel back the baggage and to unpack these concepts while relating them to behaviors. And it is critical that the role of culture (both shared and diverse beliefs, assumptions, intentions, worldviews) and systems (including processes—communications, decision-making, problem-solving, etc.—structures, technologies and the like) be unpacked as well. Through this more integral exploration it is far more likely that greater clarity will be achieved. Furthermore, the potential for supporting the kinds of agility and resiliency, grounded in values and world views, through coaching will be most useful.