The gift of accountability

By Jonathan Tame 02 Jan 2021

How do you think about accountability? Does the idea of being held to account reassure you or make you feel uncomfortable? I suspect most people will say the latter, and yet a renewal of accountability in public life could be one of the most important aims for 2021.

At the start of this year the world is facing immense challenges: rolling out the biggest vaccination programme in history, rebuilding economies hamstrung by lockdowns, and trying to reconcile fractured and polarised electorates. But are our leaders up to it? Are we producing the kind of statesmen and women who can shoulder great responsibility, balance competing demands and make compromises wisely? And, perhaps most importantly, have they earned the public trust to carry the majority of people with them? Do people trust political leaders, and their scientific and political advisers, to act in the best interests of society?

Trust in institutions and their leaders has been in steady decline for over a decade. Dishonesty, abuse and cover ups have been exposed in the senior leadership of government, global corporations, the church and media organisations.

You can’t mandate trust – it’s intangible, a measure of a relationship’s quality. But our culture tends to look at this as an individual problem, where trust depends on the character and reputation of leaders. We like to believe that someone’s personal character should be enough to ensure their integrity in public leadership; then we become cynical as most of them fail the test.

But a biblical understanding of human nature shows us that character alone is insufficient; it must be matched with effective accountability in relationship with others if a person is to stay true to their ideals over time.

The Genesis account shows that human beings were created free to choose and yet accountable to God for their conduct in fulfilling the mandate for which they were created. That was to steward the planet and develop culture, in a relationship of worship to God and service to others. Now when sin entered the world via the human heart it distorted our telos; we became turned in on ourselves. And yet sin didn’t erase that purpose – we are still called to work and build families and develop cities and create culture despite the corrupting influence of sin everywhere.

A focus on generating leaders of character without the safeguards of accountability will fail, because the problem is the ambivalence in our own hearts. Few people enter politics or other forms of public leadership for personal gain alone; instead they aspire to do good – echoing the original creation mandate. And yet when under pressure, so many end up falling into one temptation or other and when this is exposed, trust is lost.

Even if we agree that accountability is good, it can be overused as well as neglected. There is an ‘excess’ of accountability in our litigation culture – where people are afraid of being sued for doing something the wrong way, and so don’t do it at all. Like clearing ice from the pavement outside your house. Or the carer refusing to get an 88 year old out of bed because she wasn’t allowed to use the hoist alone, just in case she hurt her back and sued her employer.

At the other extreme, certain public leaders are trying to dodge accountability by calling any evidence that contradicts their viewpoint as ‘fake news’. (Interestingly, the highest number of Google searches for the word ‘accountability’ in the last 5 years peaked in the week after the US election in November.)

The gift of personal accountability to others is like a plumbline which ensures a leader can grow straight and upright. We are naïve if we imagine that being clever means never making mistakes, but honest accountability to a trusted friend or mentor means temptations can be resisted and errors of judgment corrected early on. This fosters humility, interdependence and a willingness to learn. The more gifted and capable a person is, the more important it is to make sure they remain accountable – whether they become CEO, Archbishop or even President.

Let’s make it a priority this year to review the nature and practice of accountability in any organisation we are part of. Is there one thing we can do to increase positive relational accountability around our leaders, which believes the best in them but isn’t naïve about human nature?

The challenges of 2021 call for great leaders, but that isn’t just about their intelligence, skill and experience; it’s also about ensuring their leadership is set in a robust structure of accountability. This will more likely give us leaders who are honest, real, and worthy of public trust. 

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