Of all leadership essentials, taking personal accountability is among the most important.
Accepting accountability for ourselves can be confronting on the best of days.
If we follow up those moments of self-honesty with harsh self-judgement, it becomes a real struggle that leads to more suffering. In fact, “taking accountability” can become a form of inner torment.
All too often we buy into the view that transformation comes from judgemental criticism or threat (we need to “teach ourselves a lesson”).
Criticism or threat can be directed inward toward ourselves and outward toward others.
Unfortunately, in both cases it only increases the distress in our nervous system and, more often than not, leads to silent self-soothing in the form of rationalisation (“It was her fault anyway”) or silent rebellion against our harsh inner critic (“To hell with it, I’ll do what I like!”).
Think of it this way: Would you like to work in a team where honest feedback was consistently delivered with an intention to shame, scare or belittle you or your co-workers into compliance? Do you believe deep trust and effectiveness would be nurtured by this culture?
Yet if we are not mindful we tend to use this method on ourselves, which leads to a range of unmindful responses, including trying to earn others’ approval, rebellion, self-centredness, numbness, denial, striving in stress and a deep sense of unease.
Mindful accountability involves neither attacking ourselves nor rationalising our behaviour. This is why a key leadership essential is being kind and compassionate toward ourselves.
Kindness allows us to examine our behaviour with non-judgemental curiosity and honesty when we have acted poorly or violated our values.
It helps us to bear the truth rather than ramping up our distress. In doing so it helps us to see the why behind such actions—and our underlying needs that are not being met.
Kindness doesn’t excuse or rationalise the behaviour. The goal is still to keep correcting course and realigning with our best selves. But how we do that makes all the difference.
Mindfulness allows us to be honest with ourselves and hold ourselves accountable in a that is not judgemental or critical, but rather kind and compassionate.
True compassion is not a tool of self-deception, whereby we soothe ourselves with justifications.
On the contrary, it’s precisely what allows us to look at our behaviours with stark, objective honesty. It stops our conditioned defensiveness in its tracks because we’re no longer attacking ourselves.
And when we’re not in defence mode, we can analyse and respond with more clarity and creativity. We’re no longer reacting to harsh criticism, but rather responding to the call of authentic conscience.
When I teach leaders that self-kindness is a leadership essential, I often encounter an interesting perspective.
Many leaders resist casting off the inner judge because of a deeply rooted fear that if they stop attacking themselves, they will become apathetic and irresponsible. They feel that self-attack motivates them to continually improve and achieve.
The only reason they get out of bed, keep striving and keep improving, so this thinking goes, is because their inner judge forces them to. They fear that if they let go of their inner judge, their life would disintegrate—they would become lazy and tune out.
The research suggests otherwise. From four separate experiments, researchers Juliana Breines and Serena Chen concluded that “taking an accepting approach to personal failure may make people more motivated to improve themselves.”
Among other benefits, self- compassion creates:
- greater belief that a personal weakness can be changed for the better
- greater motivation to make amends and avoid repeating a moral transgression
- greater motivation to change the weakness.
Kindness is a form of mindfulness and a core leadership essential. It has an embracing quality, allowing us to see things as they really are, rather than through a lens of shame or denial.