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Taking the Helm: Leaders who admit to mistakes build a culture of accountability

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

Genuine leadership comes from our behavior. Team members watch what a leader does as the real cue to our intentions. Words are easy, while actions speak volumes. An example of leadership behavior is the willingness to hold ourselves accountable for our actions and take responsibility for the outcome.

Leaders sometimes have the mindset that to admit a mistake somehow weakens us in the eyes of our crew. The reality is the opposite. When we hold ourselves accountable for our actions, we build credibility, trust and respect with our crew.

A captain I’m working with did this recently with his team. The captain accidently got a line caught in the shaft of the jet drive on the vessel. Instead of letting the engineer do the work to clear the line, the captain went down and had the engineer show him everything involved in removing the line, then rolled up his sleeves, grabbed the knife and got to work cutting.

The crew was surprised by the captain’s action. They’d never had a captain care about getting a line caught, much less get into the access compartment to remove it. This simple act of taking responsibility and owning the result of a decision is a step toward building credibility with team members. And it helps define the culture of the vessel.

Everyone makes mistakes. No one’s perfect. Holding ourselves accountable is sometimes considered a negative, though, because as leaders, we often feel we’re the ones who have all the answers or enough skill to not make simple mistakes. The reality is that when leaders hold  themselves accountable for the results of their actions, it reinforces that the leader is human and fallible. Being humble enough to say out loud that a mistake was made and willing to accept the consequences sends a different type of message than that of the leader who blames others for failures or tries to bury mistakes.

Successful leadership means being accountable consistently, not just every so often. Consistency is crucial to developing credibility and creating an accountability culture for the team.

Here’s how to build a culture of accountability on your vessel:

First and foremost, hold yourself accountable for whatever you’re responsible for. This is something anyone at any level of the organization can do, no matter title. It shows you walk the talk. Further, encourage every leader in the organization to demonstrate accountability. This begins with the behavior of the captain, who sets the tone for everyone to follow within the organization.

Set clear expectations right away when someone joins the team. During the hiring phase, accountability and responsibility must be discussed and clearly articulated with a candidate. A background check should include questions to determine if a candidate has demonstrated accountability in other organizations.

No one goes to work to do a bad job. To encourage and support good work, empower team members with the training, tools and time (yes, we all know there’s never enough time) that they need to succeed.

Once crew members are skilled enough to take on a project, let them do so with all necessary responsibility delegated for success. Let them have full control over what they need to do. This simple action will enable and encourage responsibility and accountability.

Now that expectations have been clearly laid out and responsibilities delegated, follow up. At monthly or semi-annual evaluations, discuss how accountable the person has been. This is in addition to any feedback given  immediately after an event where they either did or didn’t demonstrate accountability.

The best possible way to build a culture of accountability is to actually hold people accountable. This is often where leaders fall down on the job. By avoiding conflict or tough conversations, poor performance is tolerated. The message this sends is that people can slack off.

Accountability is not something that can be expected to appear because it’s commanded from on high. It’s up to leaders to lead from the front, and this means setting the example for others to follow.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is owner of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com), and now an officer in the Canadian Coast Guard. Comments are welcome below.

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