Are You Accountable or Responsible?

Posted 09.28.2011

Are you accountable or responsible? What’s the difference and why does it matter?

The first time I heard this distinction was years ago in one of my first coaching engagements. I was interviewing colleagues of my client and a senior executive said, “He needs to be more accountable and less responsible.” That made a lot of sense to me and the distinction ended up being one of the nine leadership pick up and let go distinctions in my book, The Next Level. The idea is that to grow and be effective as a leader, you have to pick up accountability for many results and let go of responsibility for a few results.

Since the book came out, I’ve had a lot of conversations with leaders about the difference between being accountable and responsible. The most recent one was yesterday in a wrap up session for our group coaching program, Next Level Leadership™.  As we talked through the progress the participants have made over the past seven months, one of them said he was still struggling with getting a handle on the difference between the two.

I probably gave the most succinct and clear answer I’ve ever given to what the difference is between accountability and responsibility. It worked for the leaders in the room yesterday. I hope it will be helpful to you.

If you’re accountable, you answer for it. If you’re responsible, you do it. I think that’s the essence of the difference. Here’s why I think it matters.

As I’ve written here before, most leaders have a history of being the “go-to person.” As the go to person, the get stuff done, get noticed and end up in bigger roles. It’s a great thing until it isn’t anymore. It ceases to be great when the scope of responsibilities is so great that you can no longer rely on the go to person approach to get it all done. That’s when you have to make the shift from being the go to person to being the person who creates a team of go to people. One of the ways you do that is to pick up accountability for many results and let go of responsibility for a few results.

To answer for it instead of doing it, you have to have the systems and processes in place that enable you to be accountable for the results instead of acting as if you’re personally responsible for the results. It’s the only way that you can create the bandwidth to do the things that only you can in your specific leadership role. It’s also one of the primary ways that you develop the capacity and capabilities of your team.

So, what say you? Are you accountable or responsible? How do you determine which answer is appropriate? Are there ever times when the answer is both? What have you learned so far on this journey?