Lorenz On Leadership: Accountability in Public Life

  • Published
  • By Retired Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz
  • Air Education and Training Command
It is cruel, this accountability of good and well-intentioned men.
"On the Collision of the Wasp and Hobson"

Editorial in the Wall Street Journal, 14 May 1952

"Accountability" is a loaded word in public life. It is usually associated with failures and firings (and, some might add, "scapegoating"). Given this negative connotation, if we were asked if we wanted to be "held accountable" for something, we would probably not volunteer.

Yet that is exactly what we do when those of us who are appointed to senior offices accept the responsibility for leadership of a public institution. For us, it's imperative to understand that holding people accountable can seem cruel, yet it is essential for maintaining the public trust. Let me explain why...

I've learned that there are three levels of accountability in public life. The first level is that of the individual in public service. To be individually accountable is to be subject to the consequences of our own choices. If we choose to do the right thing, we typically receive positive consequences. In fact, it is important to understand that holding people accountable must include rewarding good behavior and performance. When we choose not to do the right thing, however, we can expect negative consequences. This is often what we associate with the word, "accountability." For most of us, making the right personal and professional choices is simply a matter of living according to the established institutional standards. These standards are usually written down and clearly stated. There is little guesswork involved. We simply have to choose to adhere to the standards.

When we are assigned responsibility for others as a supervisor or commander, we assume a higher level of accountability. We become accountable for the choices of our people. Most of us learn rather quickly that we must set the right example for our people. We must also enforce the standards, preferably at the lowest level before minor discrepancies grow into major ones. As leaders, we also get some room to adjust the standards higher than the minimum. For example, I've always found that when my units had high standards, they had high morale, so I intentionally adjusted our expectations higher. Nevertheless, the minimum standards were clear, and we all knew what they were.

There is a third level of accountability for those of us who rise to be senior leaders in a public organization like the U. S Military. This level is fundamentally different. We are still accountable for our own choices and that of our people, but we are also accountable for outcomes.

In our business, results matter, and senior leaders are accountable for results. We can have the right intentions and work hard, but results speak for themselves. Furthermore, when things go terribly wrong, senior leaders are accountable, whether or not they had any direct personal involvement. If this seems cold and cruel, that's because sometimes, it is.

Perhaps the best explanation of this level of accountability is a 1952 Wall Street Journal editorial written after the USS Hobson and the USS Wasp collided. The commanding officer of the Hobson had gone to sleep, leaving his subordinates to run the bridge. He was awoken as the two ships approached each other, and in his disorientation gave a steering command that, in retrospect, was fatal. His last command took the ship right in front of the Wasp. When the ships ran together, the Hobson was cut in two and sank within four minutes. 176 of her crew, including the captain, drowned as a result. The Navy convened a board of inquiry to assign accountability for the incident. Many believed that it was unfair to assign blame to an exemplary officer whose intentions could not have included such terrible consequences.

In response, the Wall Street Journal editorial staff wrote,
This accountability is not for intention, but for the dead. The captain of a ship, like the captain of a state, is given honor and privileges and trust beyond other men. But let him steer the wrong course, let him touch ground, let him bring disaster to his ship or to his men, and he must answer for what he has done. No matter what, he cannot escape. It is cruel, this accountability of good and well-intentioned men.

 Like the captain of a ship or the pilot of an aircraft, senior leaders are responsible for setting the right course for their institutions in a dangerous, uncertain world. Unlike lower-level supervisors and junior commanders, they often have little written guidance on how to do this.

These leaders are responsible for charting the course for their institutions, and they are accountable for the results, although they cannot possibly predict the future with certainty. For many years to come, people will second-guess their decisions with the benefit of hindsight. Suffering this second-guessing is part of being a senior leader, and it is something all strategic leaders must come to grips with.

We have chosen to assign this level of accountability to our senior leaders. It is a tough choice, but, as the Wall Street Journal article explains, "the choice is that, or an end to responsibility and, finally...an end to the confidence and trust in the men who lead, for men will not long trust leaders who feel themselves beyond accountability for what they do."

This is the reason for assigning such a high level of accountability for senior leaders of public institutions. Accountability is essential for trust. We risk losing the trust of the American people if we do not hold ourselves accountable. When things go wrong, the American people need to see that we take actions to correct the problems. But we must also evaluate the situation, and as appropriate, assign accountability for those responsible. Sometimes, accountability should be assigned to senior leaders. This is especially true when we find problems that are "systemic" in nature. Only our senior leaders have the ability to find and fix systemic problems, even if they were not personally involved in the incidents that brought these problems to light. Our leaders are responsible and accountable for charting the right course for the institution. When the institution strays, senior leaders must be held accountable.

This can be cruel, but we are dealing with a Hobson's choice--which is really no choice at all. We either accept this level of accountability or risk losing trust. Accountability, especially for our senior leaders, is the price we pay to establish and maintain trust.

Given current events, we must maintain the high standards of the United States Military, especially for our senior leaders. The American public gives the Department of Defense their two national treasures; their sons and daughters, and their hard earned money-- and they trust us with them. They will only continue to trust us if we are held to the very highest of standards. As the old Wall Street Journal editorial stated, "It is cruel this accountability of good and well-intentioned men", but it must be done and all of us senior leaders both active and retired know it. The troops we lead deserve it and the American people demand it.

Editor's Note: This article was written in September 2008. It has been recently updated. Its applicability is timeless.