Stoking the Fire Inside

Responsibility must be bestowed, but accountability must be taken.

Craig Hickman, The Oz Principle

A 2012 article by the Harvard Business Review said: “By far and away the single-most shirked responsibility of executives is holding people accountable. No matter how tough a game they may talk about performance, when it comes to holding people’s feet to the fire, leaders step back from the heat.”

Accountability is a word thrown around a lot these days. You hear it often in conversations about corporate and governmental responsibility. Quite often, when something goes wrong, you hear the rallying cry: “Someone should be held accountable!”

But is this way of looking at accountability really the most effective?

Sid Buxton, a value stream leader for Barry-Wehmiller’s Minnesota-based packaging equipment company, Thiele Technologies, always had trouble understanding the concept of accountability.

“Does that mean,” Sid asked, “If someone has a typo, you fire them? Does that mean if they stub their toe, you cut their pay? Nobody had been able to answer that to my satisfaction.”

The meaning continued to escape Sid until he took Barry-Wehmiller Responsibility is given, but accountability has to be taken. Click To TweetUniversity’s Culture of Service Foundations class. Over three days, this course works to shape new ideas around service – from re-defining a customer from an external person to your co-worker, your family, even someone you’ve never met. It teaches the idea that service is taking action to meet the needs of someone else. Therefore, a culture of service is a shared purpose where everyone is meeting the needs of others inside and outside the organization.

As we say in the class, “Anyone becomes a customer at the moment we have an opportunity to serve.”

A critical part of service, accountability receives a new definition in the class, too. For Sid, it was like a light bulb had been switched on in his head. He learned that responsibility is given, but accountability has to be taken.

“Accountability is not about holding someone else’s feet to the fire,” said Penny Bretl, Thiele’s Culture and People Development Director and a Culture of Service professor. “It’s not about projecting an expectation onto them. It’s about one person having an intrinsic sense of ownership of a job or task and then the willingness to face the consequences of its success or failure. It’s about helping to light a fire inside of them.

“And as leaders, we have to realize that we can’t force this on anyone. Our job as leaders is to create environments that give people the space and freedom to take initiative themselves. We can’t control how a person chooses to behave in a particular moment. In a sense, it’s a fallacy to assume we can ‘motivate’ our people. Motivation comes from within.”

When the light bulb went off in Sid’s head, he now knew it was his responsibility to position others to be successful. Now, when he approaches his team, he asks himself, “How can I facilitate the idea of taking accountability?” He seeks input on what people need to be successful in their roles. He works to remove obstacles for others. He deals one-on-one with those who may have a “defeatist attitude” in order to address real concerns and asks others to simply commit to doing their best.

“When we commit to something with our whole hearts, we do everything in our power to make it happen,” Sid said. “And the vast majority of the time we’re successful. Occasionally, when we fail, there’s nothing anyone can say that will mean as much as how we already feel.”

As a truly human leader, don’t step back from the heat. Bring the kindling to help light the fire inside your team.

Truly Human Leadership is found throughout Barry-Wehmiller Companies, where Bob Chapman is Chairman and CEO. A $3+ billion global capital equipment and engineering consulting firm, Barry-Wehmiller’s 12,000 team members are united around a common belief: we can use the power of business to build a better world. Chapman explores that idea in his Wall Street Journal best-selling book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring For Your People Like Family, available from Penguin Random House.


  • Carol Dixon says:

    Truly, a powerful way to conduct one’s life, both personally and professionally.

  • Jim Gatto says:

    I wish I had a dollar for each time I have been part of a disappointing accountability discussion. Most people think of accountability in the disciplinarian carrot and stick approach and mistake motivation for directing, ordering or as I recently read, ‘size 11.5 boot management’ (as a note the author was being sarcastic thankfully). However, most frustrating of all has been my observation that everyone wants accountability except for when it applies to themselves. I am intrigued to better understand the discussion of expectations and how as a manager/leader we can inspire that sense of ownership, sense of service to others and developing intrinsic motivation needed.

  • Excellent insights on importance of accountability for leaders and the front line workers the leaders are in service to. In my work in healthcare, there is a debate about whether patients or doctors should come first. Doctors should be accountable to put the patient first. Management should be accountable to put the doctors first, ensuring they have what they need to give great patient care.
    This post hit the nail on the head in getting to the underlying concepts.
    Thank you!

  • Kit Tennis says:

    Thanks for giving us insight into yet another of the B-W processes for fostering “people-centric leadership”!

  • marty moore says:

    Sid, well written message. Keep that wood pile stocked……:):) Marty

  • Brian Gale says:

    What a great message. You are dead on – we all talk about accountability but don’t define it well. Great post!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *