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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Accountability: Accepting responsibility, taking ownership

  • Gerard Seijts
  • |
  • Sep 23, 2019
Accountability: Accepting responsibility, taking ownership

Character is an indispensable component of sustainable leadership performance.  Ivey research has identified 11 dimensions of leader character: accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance, and transcendence. In this blog, I explore the dimension of accountability. On September 17, 2018, Peter Simons, Chief Executive Officer and President of La Maison Simons, had just gotten off the phone with Beverley McLachlin, Canada’s longest serving and first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. She was upset with the company’s marketing campaign which featured a bra named after her called the “Beverley Bralette”. She wanted an apology from Simons for the inappropriate use of her name and reputation without her knowledge or consent. Earlier in the month, Simons had approved the marketing campaign for a new line of bras that featured the first name of an iconic Canadian woman, with a one-line tagline on her life and legacy that was written next to a young model wearing the bra. The bras were supposed to be honouring women who had made historical contributions to Canada. After spending many months and considerable funding towards what was supposed to be the development of an inspirational women’s lingerie line, Simons quickly found himself apologizing for one of the worst marketing campaigns that his company had ever produced.   

"As president of La Maison Simons, I allowed the use of the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin's name to market one of our products without her permission or knowledge," Simons said. "This initiative was in poor taste, and I offer my heartfelt and sincerest apologies for this inappropriate use of Ms. McLachlin's name as well as that of the other women." "I take full responsibility," he said.  "I made a mistake, and I sincerely do regret it," he said.  "Since 1840, five generations of my family have aspired to build an organization that never wavers from our values of respect, empathy and responsibility to the communities we live in," Simons said. "Realizing my error, I have discontinued and destroyed all material related to this campaign. Our organization will be meeting to ensure that we learn from this incident."

Simons modeled accountability. When you are accountable, you accept responsibility for your decisions and actions – and you do so promptly. You personally engage with the salient, important, and challenging issues. You don’t hide behind lawyers. You are willing to step up and take ownership of difficult decisions. You reliably deliver on expectations, and you can be counted upon in tough situations. You acknowledge these obligations as part of your leadership role.

Arkadi Kuhlmann, HBA '71, MBA '72, reminds us that there is no time-out in life.  When I interviewed Arkadi for the book Good Leaders Learn: Lessons from Lifetimes of Leadership, he told me that: “What I’ve learned as a leader is that life is a blackboard that you cannot erase.  Everything counts.  There’s no such thing as a time-out.  There’s no such thing as “it doesn’t count.”  There’s a blackboard and it’ll never be erased.”  We write on the blackboard every day—and we’re accountable for those writings.

Consider the most recent college-admissions scandal in the U.S. and the behaviour of celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.  Felicity Huffman admitted her guilt in the courtroom.  She also issued a public apology in which she accepted full responsibility for her wrongful actions: “I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done … and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions.”  Loughlin refused to do the same; and in fact, reports indicate, she is outraged by people who are saying that she is a cheater.

John Furlong, the former CEO of the Vancouver Olympic Committee, played a key role in bringing the Olympics to his home city in 2010, logging more than 1.2 million miles on airplanes in a far-ranging international effort.  In his book Patriot Hearts, he recounted a story of accountability rewarded.  The quest started at the turn of the new millennium, with the critical vote scheduled to be held at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Prague in 2003.  At one point on his quest to land the Olympics for Vancouver, Furlong decided that the time had come to write personal thank-you notes to all the members of the IOC with whom he had met.  It was an arduous task that he wasn’t looking forward to, but he finally forced himself to begin writing the letters during his endless succession of flights.  As he recalls:

I carried the letters in batches in my briefcase.  As I was working, the flight attendants knew what I was doing and they left me alone to write.  I was getting fed up with my own words, my hand hurt, and I was tired when the attendant arrived with a tray of water, accidentally spilling the whole thing over me.

I wanted to throw her off the plane!  She got towels, but the damage had been done.  She was heartbroken. 

I threw away a number of letters and started over.  It was painful.  But, after I had mailed them, and then started receiving phone calls from people who were so touched by the letters that they were going to support us, it meant a lot.  Writing these letters was an important detail and every single detail matters.  I had finished the task and it was a burden off my shoulders, but I didn’t know for sure how it would play out.  Then, of course, we won by three votes in Prague. 

Here is the real lesson: We can choose to make the effort or not. Much of the time, I think we ignore what needs to be done and accept less than the very best.  I tried with the Games not to allow anyone to do that.

We’ve all been there: looking for a rationalization as to why we can’t, or won’t, or shouldn’t be held accountable.  Furlong had a ready-made excuse, when the flight attendant dumped a tray of water on his work: “Hey, I tried; but it clearly wasn’t meant to be.  I’ll find some other way to follow up with those IOC members.”  Accountability may reside in the small details: the letters written over, painfully.  But it may ultimately manifest itself in the three votes that change the course of sports history.  Don’t cut a corner, advises John Furlong—not now, not ever! Make the effort.  Do what you know needs to be done, even if no one else will know what you did or didn’t do.  Because, ultimately, you will know.

You can read more about accountability in the book Developing Leadership Character written by Ivey Business School professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts and Jeffrey Gandz (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).