In leadership development circles, the word accountability has so smoothly melted into the vernacular that we almost don’t notice it anymore. Let’s notice it for a minute. Accountability is a characteristic that is highly prized when we think of it as the capacity to tell the story of a situation with the story teller at the center. It’s not uncommon to hear, “Once upon a time there was this horrible disaster and it was all someone else’s fault.” But it is so much more compelling to hear the words, “….and I was responsible for what happened.”
An account is a story. How we tell ours is crucial to the world around us. To understand that we have choices about how we present that story is critical. (I had a boss who famously said once, “I never like to let the facts get in the way of the truth when I tell a story.” There are many ways to think about that line, but we’ll take that up on another day.) In a conversation with a client, I recently recounted this story here, told here with the permission of those very kids.
Long ago, I came home from work one afternoon to find that my little latch-key kids had left something important broken in the sink. It was our “magic wand”–one of those cheap acrylic rods filled with glittery goo that slides fascinatingly from one end of the tube to the other–that we used for family meetings. It was cracked in half and the green glitter had oozed into a puddle in the sink basin. Stricken, I yelled at them, “What happened to the magic wand?”
There was a terrible silence. Then they both started talking at once, blaming each other, pointing, accusing. The hot defense escalated into quite a ruckus and I’d had a long day. I lifted each of them up and plopped each of them down hard on the piano bench, side by side, and said, in my most ferocious mom-voice, “You tell the story like you’re the only one in the world responsible for what happened.” Silence. Then, quite meekly, out came, “I chased him around and spit on him and teased him until he hit me over the head and it broke.” More silence. Then the other kid, “I hit her over the head with it and it broke.”
I said, “If I am the only person responsible for what happened here, I must admit that the magic wand is important to me. But I left it out instead of putting it on top of the fridge where it lives. And you played with it until it broke.”
Something astonishing happened that day when we each told the story, putting ourselves at the center of responsibility. It was like a poisonous vapor blew out of our house. The broken magic wand was still magic, as long as we were fully accountable.
The story–useful and true*—reminds me of the power of accountability and I often tell clients who are caught up in the drama of their own situation to “tell that story again as if you are the only person in the world responsible for what happened.”
*as approved by the veracity committee of both my kids, who are now adults.