Extreme Accountability: The Key to Gaining Access to Extraordinary Freedom
How far does an elite leader go in taking accountability for the choices, actions, and results of team members?
Be ruthlessly honest in answering these three questions:
- If you’re leading a meeting, are you accountable for all team members being fully engaged from start to finish?
- If you’ve shared expectations, gotten buy-in on results, done proper training, created incentives, cultivated an accountability-driven culture, are you accountable when your team members repeatedly don’t do what they know they need to do?
- If your boss micromanages people, are you accountable for pointing out how his/her actions overlap with your job responsibilities or impede the quality of your work?
For an elite leader, the answer to all these questions is “Yes. I am accountable.” And if you’re a leader seeking to improve, you are massively empowered whenever you choose to take accountability.
Accountability is source of extraordinary freedom. You gain access to your full performance capacity for any task. You get freed up to envision and achieve greater success than you would have ever considered possible.
As a case example, I’ll show you how to take accountability for an audience’s likely stereotyping, specifically jail inmates stereotyping me as a privileged white male, with the implication that I have nothing of value to communicate.
TAKING ACCOUNTABILITY FOR AN AUDIENCE’S STEROTYPING
My long time friend, Lew Schiffman, shared an unexpected invitation. “Art, for years you’ve done speeches for business leaders about accountability. I’d like you to come to our jail, and speak to the inmates about accountability.”
Picturing a cell block with my audience dressed in orange jump suits, I was feeling out of my comfort zone. So I asked, “Tell me more about the inmates.”
Lew answered, “About 45% are Hispanic, 30% are black, and the majority has abused illegal drugs.”
I instantly declined, saying “I don’t think I’m a good fit. The inmates will consider me a white privileged guy who lacks street cred, and dismiss my entire message.”
Little did I know that one year later, I would speak to 75 inmates at Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque, and receive a standing ovation plus outstanding audience feedback.
How did this happen when I had previously declined the invitation, fully convinced I wouldn’t be able to dispel the inmate’s stereotyping so my message would connect with them?
Seven months after Lew’s invitation, I invented a new self-management tool, the Freedom Log. I made a commitment to seek out daily opportunities to expand my comfort zone—with my business, friendships, family, and as a masters track pentathlete.
Why would I deliberately force myself to experience more self-doubt, fear, uncertainty, and outright failure? Of all the potential good habits I might start, why did I pick “expanding my comfort zone?” Because every time I take accountability for accomplishing a goal that seems to require unreasonable effort or risk, I gain two massive benefits that produce extraordinary freedom:
- I enlarge my freedom of choice. Instead of operating within my self-imposed comfort zone, I can dare to pursue my passion-driven goals and embrace the unreasonable effort and risk that will be a necessary part of the journey.
- I gain access to my full performance capacity. Instead of repeating familiar routines and accepting my current skill proficiency as good enough, I can experiment with original ways to improve and expand my capabilities.
I use the Freedom Log every day to record three things:
- Unreasonable goals to pursue,
- Results achieved, and
- Lessons learned from making the effort.
And I’m alert to seize on emerging opportunities to do uncomfortable tasks as the day unfolds.
So when I scheduled a return trip to Albuquerque, I decided to take accountability for doing something I’d already ruled out as “for certain failure”— crafting a speech for the jail inmates.
I couldn’t help but notice the irony in rethinking my choice. The title of my speech was “To be a Victim or be Accountable: The Most Important Choice of Your Life.” And yet, I’d been avoiding accountability by blaming the inmates with this victim rant:
“They don’t have the right background to understand and benefit from my ideas. They’ll stereotype me as a white privileged dude who has no appreciation of their impoverished background and who couldn’t possibly have a relevant message to share with them.” Armed with such seemingly valid reasons, my only choice was to avoid the embarrassment of having my speech bomb.
Shifting from being a victim to taking accountability required an unprecedented stretch. I took accountability for causing my audience to shift their perception of me from a white privileged guy to a speaker devoted to delivering a life-changing message. I’m accountable for influencing my audience’s perception of me from the start to the finish of my 75 minute speech, even with a group where I seem to have little in common.
Does this register for you as a case of taking “extreme” accountability? If it does, notice how I’m freed up to take action. I am empowered to experiment with customizing my speaking techniques and content to connect with an audience I’d originally ruled out as unquestionably beyond my ability to reach.
CRAFTING A SPEECH TO DISARM STEREOTYPING + MAXIMIZE ENGAGEMENT
While I’ve given hundreds of speeches over three decades, I’d never given one where I took such rigorous accountability for orchestrating an audiences’ potential stereotyping of me. I used two primary techniques.
1. Address the elephant in the room.
I suspected the inmates’ would fall into stereotyping and naturally wonder, “What does this white privileged guy have to offer us?”
When I defined the concept of “mindset/outlook” (definition: what you tell yourself about a situation especially speculation about the effort required and how things will turn out), I deliberately used an example to address the unspoken elephant in the room. I said, “Right now some of you have chosen the mindset, ‘Art’s a privileged white guy. What does he have to tell me about achieving success. And some of you have chosen a different mindset, ‘This dude’s been successful in two fields, business + sports. I’m going to listen to every single word and learn something valuable.’ At this very moment, each of you can choose your mindset. Your choice will determine if our conversation is a waste of time or a valuable maybe even life-changing lesson.”
I allowed ten seconds of silence to let the significance of their immediate choice to sink in.
2. Gather examples/stories customized to match the audiences’ life circumstances.
My rap sheet is spotless. I don’t have past history of growing up as an at-risk youth, being a drug addict, or serving jail time. So I used case examples of my long jump coach, my limo driver in Kansas City, and a former inmate from the Albuquerque jail–three men with either impoverished or criminal backgrounds who demonstrate how taking accountability for your mindset is life-altering.
In sharing their stories, I linked their success as athletes or business owners to an ability to shift from a default victim mindset to taking accountability for generating empowering beliefs like:
- “The best motivational speeches I’ve heard come from people who said, “You’ll never make it.”
- “Poverty is a terrific form of motivation.”
- “My job is to make the impossible possible.”
- “Don’t be reasonable. Dream big.”
- In securing a job when you have a criminal record: “Be sincere. Take accountability for your crime + your intense desire to turn your life around.”
As a result of this speech preparation, I didn’t feel a shred of anxiety from the minute I entered the cell block through my departure. I felt supremely confident, fueled by my outlook, “This morning I get to change lives.”
I closed my speech by challenging the inmates to take accountability for creating the first “Victim-Free Jail” in America.
THE INMATES GOT THE MESSAGE
By taking accountability for their default mindset, one saturated with a white male privilege stereotype, I enabled nearly all the inmates to become fully engaged listeners. Their buy-in was reflected in the program evaluations which included one question and then room for comments.
Question: Did you decide to stop being a victim and start taking accountability?
Inmate responses: Yes – N=44 No – N=1 Undecided – N=1
Here’s a sampling of the 46 comments received:
- “I’m going to stop blaming depression I have from a bad day just so I can use drugs and get help and treatment. I will get a job and keep myself busy all day so I don’t think about using drugs just because I’m bored.”
- “Stop blaming the crowd of people I hang around with for me getting into trouble, when it was my choice to pick them to hang around with. Be a leader, not a follower.”
- “It really helped me to open my eyes to always playing the victim role through most of my life. I was molested by my family as my earliest memories and have always blamed myself for me not being able to have a life of not running away from pain. I will always try to remember to take accountability.”
I got choked up reading their comments. And if not for my Freedom Log, I would have blown off this opportunity.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN TO PRACTICE EXTREME ACCOUNTABILITY
Midway through my speech, I paused to invite the inmates to reflect on this question: “What is a situation where you didn’t get the results you wanted and you thought blaming other people or circumstances was totally justified? You’ve always considered this problem or bad outcome to be another person’s fault or caused by some condition out of your control.”
Now it’s your turn to reflect on the same question. To prime the pump, here’s a sample of frequent answers from my business clients:
- “I tolerate being micromanaged by my boss because that’s his customary management style that’s contributed to his career success.”
- “I attend unproductive management meetings and assume the situation is unfixable and certainly not my job to improve the quality of interaction. I’d rather be seen as a guy who’s nice, easy to work with, and accommodates time demands faced by my team members.”
- “I listen to my colleagues use victim language and don’t think it’s my role to invite them to take accountability for their victim mindset.
So what are situations where you now see value in taking extreme accountability with the possibility of gaining extraordinary freedom? Pause to write down these situations.
TAKE ACCOUNTABILITY FOR YOUR MINDSET ABOUT ACCOUNTABILITY
The word “accountability” comes with negative spin, like finding fault, determining who deserves to be blamed, and being punished for a screw up. Given such aversive connotations, who in their right mind would want to pursue extreme accountability?
Only individuals who want to exercise “extraordinary freedom” The more accountability you choose to take on, the more extraordinary is your exercise of freedom of choice and freedom to discover your full performance capacity.
I closed my speech to the detention center inmates by declaring what’s at stake when you choose between adopting a victim mindset or an accountability mindset:
“Jail is a sentence imposed by legal/judicial system. Once you do your time you regain your freedom.
Victim mindset is a self-imposed sentence. By failing to take accountability for your mindset, you limit your freedom. Unless you have a wake-up call, you give yourself a life sentence.
I invite each of you to make today your wake-up call and chose to take accountability for how the rest of your life turns out.”
I extend the same invitation to you and all my blog readers. Make a habit of taking extreme accountability. I promise you will achieve goals you’ve already dismissed as impossible.
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