“Whatever Happened to Accountability” is the title of an article in the October, 2012 Harvard Business Review. Author Thomas Ricks, uses the United States Army as an example of an organization that held everyone, especially officers, to high standards during World War II but then let the “culture of high standards and accountability” deteriorate. “When standards are not rigorously upheld and inadequate performance is allowed to endure in leadership ranks, the effect is not only to rob an enterprise of some of its potential. It is to lose the standards themselves and let the most important capabilities of leadership succumb to atrophy…. How can an officer corps known for its excellence be infiltrated so quickly by mediocrity?”
The article contends that incompetent military officers were promoted. The emphasis moved from maintaining high standards to giving everyone a chance and building an officer guild. The top leaders became micromanagers and failed to hold others accountable for their actions. Ricks notes that for business as well as for military leadership, “bad leaders drive out good ones, and mediocrity can quickly become institutionalized.”
I know nothing about the US Army or the validity of the HBR analysis, but the fading of accountability seems to extend far beyond this military example. Coaches and counselors are among those who seek to build accountability into their work but a culture of entitlement and a fascination with tolerance can undermine accountability and eat away standards in different parts of a culture. Teachers see this repeatedly in students who expect an A regardless of the quality of their course work. In addition to academia, hasn’t this permeated the theological and church worlds where many Christians live no differently than anyone else but prefer “feel-good” songs and messages rather than any calls to commitment?
The HBR article is strong on analysis but weaker on providing solutions. Maybe the solution starts with individuals. I confess my tendency to give mostly A grades, even for poor work, because this avoids the student complaints. But this doesn’t help students or maintain academic excellence. Wherever we work we can build quality and instill accountability even as we maintain sensitivity, grace and respect for others. Does any of this have relevance for you? Please comment.