The Effective Leader – Accountability Flows Uphill

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

When things go wrong in an organization, people see very quickly what the leader is made of. Leaders are generally given the benefit of the doubt when things are going well and the assumption is that the leader created those successes.

There’s an interesting change in mindset of the organization when things are going poorly. The organization often doesn’t immediately fault the leader, but looks to the leader to proclaim what the source of the problem might be.

How a leader responds when results are poor is a great test of her character. A good leader will remember that accountability flows uphill, while credit flows downhill.

Judge Smails, from the classic golf movie Caddyshack shared a witty poem about this leadership attitude:

“It’s easy to grin

When your ship comes in

And you’ve got the stock market beat.

But the man worthwhile,

Is the man who can smile,

When his shorts are too tight in the seat.”


Here’s a few stories that illustrate this concept rather well.


My sophomore year of high school I wrestled in the lightest weight class on my varsity team. Although the matches were one-on-one, when we wrestled against another school, there was also a team score. As the light-weight, my score was set early and the pressure was off as the team scores added-up. Those in the heavier weights, in a close match, didn’t just have the pressure of their own one-on-one results, but also the team’s results.

On a tightly contested match against our cross-town rival, one of our heavier wrestlers got himself into a tough position and ended-up losing a match that he should have won. Even though other wrestlers had lost, much of the team’s ultimate loss to our rivals seemed to rest on his shoulders. His loss sealed our fate, where the one match that followed mattered little toward the team result.

In the local paper interview following that devastating loss, our coach, Dick Fleischman, told everyone “That was my fault we lost that match. (The wrestler) did exactly what I told him to do.” Mr. Fleischman taught me an incredible lesson about accountability that night. When the world would have made it easy to point a finger at any of the wrestlers that lost, or a poor decision that got a wrestler in trouble, Mr. Fleischman took full accountability for his team’s result.


One day a HR Director showed up at work and noticed that all of the trees in front of the corporate office had been aggressively trimmed. In fact, these large trees looked awful! Where the HR Director was responsible for the facilities, he reached out to the Facilities Manager to learn more about how this happened. To his surprise, he learned that a well-intending, but inexperienced facilities employee had decided to trim the trees himself, to save the company money.

A furious CEO stormed into the HR Director’s office, having heard that the tree destruction was the work of one of our employees. He insisted on knowing the name of the employee who trimmed the trees because he was going to ‘have his head.’ The HR Director replied “I trimmed the trees.”

The CEO, now furious, pushed again for information and the HR Director again accepted the accountability for the failure, not naming the facilities employee. The HR Director went further to explain that this happened under his watch and was therefore his responsibility, and that if termination was in order, it should be him.

A bold move? Yes. A crazily bold illustration of accountability. Yes, as well.


A Vice President restructured his department and empowered his new department leadership to make all staffing decisions. The VP was involved in discussions, but only to provide insights, not to influence the direction of the team.

The team reached what many might have deemed to be an aggressive department change, which included laying-off two longer-term managers, but the VP embraced the decision as his own. After all, he had empowered the team to make this decision.

When the CEO and others ultimately disagreed with the decision, the VP explained the rationale (over-and-over) without ever disclosing that the ultimate details were not his decision. Whether he would have made the same or a different decision is irrelevant, because the VP understood that accountability flows uphill.


A good leader understands that she should ‘give credit where credit is due.’ When results are good, congratulations may flow, and a weak leader may be tempted to take the some of the credit for the successes. After all, she is expected to take accountability for the challenges, right?!

Faydra D. Fields once said “People who lack integrity will refuse to give credit where credit is due and will steal your credit and pretend to be you.”

The insecure manager may not hesitate to take credit for work that might not be his own. Sometimes fear of being replaced, or having his team ‘eclipse’ him in popularity. The manager truly interested in the organization and his team will give credit for successes to those who actually carried the load.

The impact of sharing credit with the team is captured by Brian Tracy’s quote “The more credit you give away, the more will come back to you. The more you help others, the more they will want to help you.”


The first human resource award I ever won was very early in my career, while I still worked for Idaho State University. The university had an extremely slow and cumbersome search process to fill vacant positions, and I built a simple technological fix that both quantified results and cut the time required to fill positions by over 30%. My boss took the idea to a national conference of the College and University Personnel Association (CUPA), where it won an award!

I excitedly awaited the return of my boss from this conference, with my plaque, but to my dismay, guess whose name was on the trophy? My boss’ name was on the trophy. He didn’t ask for it to be engraved that way, but my work was a reflection of his department and his leadership. The recognition committee didn’t ask for contributor names – they just awarded the department leader.

Credit flows inadvertently uphill on occasion, deserved or not. This is one of the biggest reasons that a good leader can afford to give as much credit as possible to contributors at all levels. I’ve been on stage and in other forums where my name has been listed in a ‘thank you’ from corporate leadership, where my team actually did most of the work. (If someone hands me a microphone, I’ll give credit where it is due, but that isn’t always a guarantee.)


When results are good, the leader is generally the first one to receive credit. When results are poor, the world looks for the leader to point a finger. The good leader can hold people accountable in private, but recognizes that accountability lies with her.

Remembering the two, simple, directional arrows is a great way to remember what flows up versus down. Share credit downward as often as you can, and remember that accountability flows upward. For what it’s worth, some of the most amazing leaders I’ve worked with have exemplified exactly this understanding of credit and accountability.

To learn more about Rod Lacey or SunstoneHR, please click here.