I owe a good chunk of the thinking behind this post to Roger Connors, one of the authors of The Oz Principle, a book primarily about business practices and leadership (I’m actually not quite certain— I began but never finished it). This was a man you couldn’t say no to, not because he would browbeat you—instead, you didn’t want to refuse him.
I’ve borrowed the idea from him and wrote it down once. Here it comes.
There is no word for ‘accountability’ in Spanish. Certainly, the concept isn’t entirely foreign to Spanish speakers, but it takes more words. There is a word for responsibility, ‘responsibilidad’. The significance of this might be lost, unless you want to distinguish between these oft confused ideas. Doing so, could be very meaningful in any leadership or mentorship position.
Responsibility is a moral obligation. Responsibility is something taken upon one’s self— sometimes unwittingly, other times in a more explicit manner. Whichever it is, the implications of responsibility are theoretically endless. Granted, my responsibility for someone in Nigeria might be less obvious, and more general than my responsibility to my wife… but as a moral obligation, the limits of responsibility are rather wide, and difficult to measure.
In contrast, accountability is the very essence of social contract (see Thomas Hobbes or John Locke). Accountability is a social obligation. It is the easily measurable counterpart to responsibility. I can call you to account for something in fairness, only if you and I have agreed previously to said ‘contract’. Some of these contracts are explicit, others implicit. Examples include: it is implicit that if you live in a country and are ‘benefiting’ from said countries social programs and government, then you are expected to abide by the law of the land (note: I am not excusing unethical acts outside of your country of origin/residence); an explicit contract is when you take a class at the university. You pay for the course, and enter into an agreement with the professor to fulfill items required by the syllabus. Accountability is far more easily measurable.
With this in mind, the statement, “I’m going to hold you personally responsible” doesn’t hold up— instead, we should be saying, “I’m going to hold you personally accountable.” In no way do I mean to diminish the importance of responsibility as a concept, but the way that we teach it to others should be looked at. Instead of being something for which there is some unclear (perhaps even arbitrary) standard to judge someone, we should make clear the difference between responsible behavior and the lack thereof. For example: I can tell my brother that because he is the only one accountable for his grades, that it would be irresponsible of him to ignore them, because the ramifications affect not just him, but those around him. Now explaining why all of that is true is another thing, but perhaps this is a clear way of looking at these twin concepts. Understanding such is fairly critical when in the role of leadership or mentorship.