Who is Accountable?

President Obama has often spoken about a new air of accountability in Washington. He has extolled business leaders to bring a sense of ethical responsibility to their activities. Yet……

It doesn’t seem that much is different. On Christmas Day Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a Northwest Airline jet as it was landing in Detroit. It is clear from all accounts that Abdulmutallab was someone whom the intelligence communities were aware held a potential threat to US security. Yet with no apparent difficulty, he was able to board a US airline flight in Amsterdam and almost succeed in creating another public drama.

What’s at the bottom of this failure. My sense is that it about lack of accountability. After 9/11, there was much made about the inefficiency of the US intelligence system. Often agencies within the government act as if they are competing with each other to get the best information. These turf wars were shown by several investigations to have kept the clear picture of terrorist plotting 9/11 obscured.

OK, we make mistakes, but we are hearing the same kind of stories about the Abdulmutallab situation that we heard after 9/11. The intelligence organizations who had parts of the puzzle didn’t talk effectively to each other. This is the case even after hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to redesign the intelligence structure even putting in a new cabinet level leader as the Director of National Intelligence.

So why did we not succeed in tearing down the walls that block the free flow of information? I see this problem often in the businesses I work with. Companies have a crisis of some sort – perhaps its a financial disaster or a creditability problem that’s onerous. The board (like Congress) steps in to fix the problem. The way they look at it is that they can fix the problem with a new structure, a new set of rules and maybe a new leader. Mostly this fails, just like the situation in Washington.

Why? Because the root cause of the problem has not been addressed. The root cause is often the internal behaviors that can’t be easily reshaped by rules. Iterative change won’t work. What is needed is from the ground up transformational change. To bring this about requires great leadership who lead by example and inspire everyone to act in a manner that fundamentally changes the organizations mindset.

The first step to this change is leadershipo that is both transparent and knows how to not be trapped by the adage, “That’s how we have always done it here”. This sentiment comes from the comfort zone of insiders who don’t really want much change. After all, if change was real, what would it mean to their personal power and relationships? So the leader has to listen with discernment. Listen with ears that let them understand what’s real and what’s just a story to keep things the way they are.

The second requirement for real change is to establish a set of standards for accountability. Now this is not as easy as it sounds. I have never found an organization that’s having problems where there is real accountability from top to bottom. Now the good news is that the change can simply start with the new leaders and their key people.

What does accountability mean? It means that I am responsible to do what I say when I say it in a way that provides value. This means that personal agendas have to be set aside for the overall health and vitality of the organization. Like I said, we all make mistakes, but what we can allow is these mistakes to continue. If someone doesn’t learn from their errors, they are clearly in the wrong role and perhaps the wrong organization.

The last requirement for real change is to instill meaning into the work of the organization. Let those who work there know why what they do is important to themselves, their colleagues those who buy their good or services and to their communities.

In this short space, I won’t go in to more detail. I will say that its clear that none of these three requirements for transformational change occurred in the US intelligence apparatus. So change was impossible. I hope the current lessons will lead to real change before a tragedy becomes us.

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