As global leaders continue to face unprecedented change and disruption, it’s clear that they need to be stronger than ever before. That is true in every type of organization. But what does it mean to be a truly accountable leader? And is there any connection between strong leadership accountability and organizational performance?

In 2016, Lee Hecht Harrison, a talent development and transition company, conducted research confirming that a leadership accountability gap is a dragging down many businesses. LHH surveyed over 1,900 senior human resources leaders and business executives in 20 countries, and asked them about the state of the leadership in their organizations.

Globally, the researchers found that 71% of respondents believe that leadership accountability is a critical but often overlooked business issue. The data also showed that only 31% were satisfied with the degree of accountability being shown by their leaders.

What is particularly interesting is that these overall survey findings are fairly consistent across the world, as demonstrated in the graphic below.

There were some other findings that paint a worrying picture of the state of leadership today in many companies:

  • Only 45% of global respondents said their companies set clear expectations for their leaders, leaving many to figure out how to lead on their own without any parameters or best practices.
  • Only 45% of organizations said their leaders are fully committed to their roles.
  • Only 20% of respondents said their organizations have the courage to address mediocre leadership. In other words, they know who the unaccountable leaders are, but they refuse to remove them from their roles.
  • Only 20% said they have a strong leadership culture. A strong leadership culture is critical for success, and if yours is weak, you will struggle to compete in your industry.
  • The survey also revealed that accountability seems to diminish the further down the leadership hierarchy you go. Of the respondents, 52% said they were satisfied with the accountability demonstrated by senior executives, but only 31% were satisfied with the performance of mid-level managers and only 30% were with frontline managers.

How do we strengthen leadership accountability?

At a time when we need our leaders to be at their strongest, these findings show that we’re seeing more and more examples of individuals falling significantly short of their obligations. The global research by LHH reveals that at the heart of the challenge is a significant leadership accountability gap.

The solution is for leaders and their organizations to step up and demonstrate strong accountability at a personal and collective level – and they can start by committing to the leadership contract, made up of what we refer to as four “terms”.

The first term is that leadership is a decision, and individuals have to be sure that they want to be defined as leaders.

The second term notes that leadership is a solemn obligation, and that all leaders need to step up and live up to those obligations every day to make their organization stronger.

The third term acknowledge that leadership is hard work and you have to get tough to tackle it. Far too many leaders only like tackling the easy tasks of leadership. In fact, being a leader requires you to make unpopular decisions, give frank feedback to colleagues, and call out unproductive behaviour. These are hard things to do, but necessary if our organizations are to succeed.

The final term notes that leadership is a community and you need to connect with your fellow leaders. Too many leaders are isolated and disconnected from one another. To be an effective leader, you must build relationships and network to share ideas and solutions.

The organizational response

As already set out, the first term of the leadership contract says that leadership is a decision. Organizations also need to make a decision, which centres on making leadership accountability a business priority. This means that there is a shared sense of clarity among the board, the CEO, the executive team and HR as to the organization’s responsibility in encouraging strong leadership accountability across the enterprise.

Once your organization makes the decision to ensure that leadership accountability is a critical business priority, then you must be clear on your obligation: to create and communicate clear leadership expectations to your leaders. The best way to do this is by creating a leadership contract for your organization.

Building leadership accountability also requires organizations to do some difficult things, like addressing mediocre leaders and unaccountable ones.

As our research has shown, this is a real challenge for most organizations. Too often, attempts to build strong leadership accountability are undermined because we fail to take action against leaders who are simply not prepared to be accountable. Keeping these leaders in their roles has consequences. It sends the message to other leaders and employees that you are prepared to tolerate mediocrity in your organization. It also disengages your high performers, who are truly accountable, as their contributions are minimized.

There has never been a more important time to build a strong culture of leadership in organizations. Achieving this means ensuring leaders can build relationships with one another, encouraging them to hold one another accountable, and helping them work collaboratively to drive the success of their organizations.