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.

If You Can Read This, You’re In Trouble!

There are many measurements of time, one of the shortest being the nano-second. There is a new time metric that has been defined as the “ohno-second”, or the time between when you click “Send” and you realize that you’ve just made a huge mistake. Maybe you’ve ‘replied to all’ by accident, or sent confidential information to the wrong “John.”

By Rod Lacey, Sunstone HR

Carved In Stone

One of my favorite activities on a vacation is to look for ancient petroglyphs. These carvings in rocks have lasted hundreds or even thousands of years. What was written long ago still exists today. We may not understand the meaning or original intent, but those images and once-important stories are on track to last forever.

With the current, heavy reliance on written communications in business, and the ease that has been created by text, email, social media and instant messaging, the face-to-face conversations are slowly losing their valuable place in our communication style. “Why should I walk over to see you when I can IM and get a quick reply?” “Why should I call you when an email allows me to click “send” and quickly move on to my next task?”

Here’s some statistics related to how our electronic communications are growing:

  • In 2013 over 100 billion business emails were sent and received per day.*

Even more alarming are the poor practices that occur in business:

  • 50% of employees have sent or received emails that include jokes, stories or pictures of a “questionable” nature.**
  • 6% of employees have emailed confidential company information that they should not have.
  • Although 92% of employees said they had never sent an email that put their company at risk, however 68% in fact had.**
  • More than 25% of companies in a recent survey have fired an employee for email misuse; most of the terminations were for inappropriate or offensive language and violation of company rules.**

Elliot Spitzer, former NY Governor and lawyer said “Never talk when you can nod and never nod when you can wink and never write an email because it’s death. You’re giving prosecutors all the evidence we need.”

Have you ever worked for a company when the discovery-hold notice from Legal is circulated? If your communications related to that topic were written, they may as well have been carved on stone – they’re on track to last forever.

Back to some statistics:

  • 24% of employers have had email subpoenaed by courts and regulators and another 15% have battled workplace lawsuits triggered by employee email.***

The same rule applies to social media posts. Unless you have completely misrepresented your identity, there is no imaginary shield that protects your online activity from discovery. There is also a fuzzy line that defines when you are acting independently, or acting as a company representative. Be careful what you carve in stone in any forum.

As a seasoned human resources professional I have had meetings with employees at all levels of the organization about their online activities. Most of these individuals were just coached but some were fired.

A good communications policy can protect the company to some degree, but if you consider that the average employee sends or receives over 100 emails per day*, even the best of policies still leaves the company exposed.

Understanding and respecting that written communications are a necessary and productive work forum, here are some helpful tips to consider before any written communication is sent (aka: carved in stone):

Consider the Weight

As a general practice, and assuming you aren’t corresponding under attorney-client privileges, the weightier the topic, the more verbal communication should occur. When the email chatter gets more serious, a simple “I’ll be right over” or “Call me” would be more appropriate than continuing to circulate sensitive information.

Be wary of the unintended consequences of e-discovery. Ask if you would want your email read out-loud to a jury in front of your CEO and General Counsel.

Consider All Potential Audiences

Never send anything that could be offensive to anyone. I was once involved in the firing of an employee at another company. Back-in-the-day when everyone mass-forwarded the ‘joke of the day’, a racially insensitive joke began to circulate in my company, which was brought to my attention by an employee, in a protected class, who was offended. As I worked to clean-up the mess in my own company I was able to identify the chain of emails and exactly who had first sent it to an employee at my company. I contacted the HR department at that company (as the individual sending the email used his/her work email) and informed them of the email and its impact on one of my employees. I left the discipline up to that HR team, but learned days later that the employee had been fired.

Never E-Fight

You know what I’m talking about. Whenever I’ve encountered the ‘rage email’ in my inbox, I never reply. Instead, I immediately walk down to that person’s office, close the door and say “Sounds like we need to talk.” Without exception, the issue has never been as big as was expressed in the email.

If you’re typing is in ALL CAPS, or your tone feels that way, don’t send it!

Avoid E-Threats

Never threaten harm or undue consequences to another employee, especially in writing. Performance expectations are a good practice to communicate in writing, but let’s limit consequences to subjects related to performance management.

Pause Before You Send

There are many measurements of time, one of the shortest being the nano-second. There is a new time metric that has been defined as the “ohno-second”, or the time between when you click “Send” and you realize that you’ve just made a huge mistake. Maybe you’ve ‘replied to all’ by accident, or sent confidential information to the wrong “John.”

Even in our busy lives, it is well worth the time to pause, take a deep breath, proofread one more time and triple-check our work before “send” is clicked.

Avoid Names Where Possible

Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if you named an employee with performance challenges in an email and in a whirlwind of forwards through management, that employee eventually was copied on your note? Or, what if you expressed exasperation with an employee, by name in an email to the manager, for her use of FMLA, and your email was subpoenaed for her later EEOC claim?

If the receiver knows who you are referencing, you could refer to the ‘current situation’ or something generic (although please not derogatory) rather than naming the employee. If the material is super sensitive, it should be reserved for a face-to-face conversation anyway.

Be Careful with Sarcasm

Meaning is difficult to convey in writing, so sarcasm may or may not be fully understood. Even if that’s your go-to communication style, business emails should be written professionally and your sarcasm should be saved for a forum where you get the pleasure of the real-life ‘laugh-out-loud.’

Never Vent in Writing

If you need to vent, walk to your friend’s workstation and ask if they have a few minutes to talk. Negatively communicating via any medium with names, roles, titles and functions attached could have negative consequences.


In high school I was on the wrestling team. On the walls of that sweaty wrestling room were dozens of motivational posters. The one that stands out to me the most is the one that I hoped never to read. The only poster on the ceiling of that room read “If You Can Read This, You’re in Trouble.” A wrestler reading that would have to be on his back, looking up at the ceiling, struggling for his existence, and very much in trouble.

Considering that written business communications today are essentially carved in stone, I keep a mental image of that wrestling poster in my mind before I click Send or Submit.

I do my very best to never to send anything that would cause me to fear “If you read this, I’m in trouble.

For more information on Rod Lacey or Sunstone HR, click here!


*Email Statistics Report, 2013-2017 The Radicati Group, Inc.

**Lisa Guerin, “Smart Policies for Workplace Technologies”

***American Management Association, “2007 Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey.”