In a fighter pilot’s mind, perfection is a goal, never a reality. Over time, fighter pilots have learned the only way to get to the level of high performance expected is through deliberate progress and a constant review and analysis of our performance. Nobody wants to make mistakes or fail. And fighter pilots? We tend to be our own worst critics by putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to get it right the first time. But a perfect flight? A perfect mission? Near impossible. So, we focus on holding ourselves accountable, learning from mistakes, and sharing those lessons learned with others to elevate the performance of the team.
To be an effective leader, we must hold team members accountable, and we must hold ourselves accountable too. So, how do we cultivate a culture of accountability in our organizations?
Create an Environment of Trust
Trust in an organization is critical to achieving a high level of performance. Trust is the foundation for creating connections with your team and establishing an environment where people feel safe to share ideas, give feedback, and hold each other accountable.
An organizational belief in accountability is possible when we have established an environment of trust, safety to be vulnerable, and freedom to share feedback without blame or shame. Leaders must own that responsibility.
Request feedback from superiors, peers, and subordinates. Encourage team members to provide candid feedback, to let you know when they don’t understand something or if something isn’t working. Demonstrate that accountability is acceptable and desired. Rather than being defensive, be receptive to feedback. Truly listen to what people are saying, and look for ways to improve. There is also significant value in having a trusted advisor on your team or a leadership coach to hold you accountable and give you honest feedback.
We need to have the courage to take responsibility for our actions but also give feedback to our team when they don’t meet expectations. Be deliberate about providing feedback to team members. When we have the courage to provide feedback, both good and bad, then we can lift others and elevate the performance of the team. Providing feedback can be difficult, especially when you’re letting someone know they’re not meeting expectations. For me, it’s one of the most difficult aspects of being a leader. Those conversations aren’t fun, but they are necessary. We owe it to our team to provide feedback, recommend course corrections, and let people know when they’re not making the cut.
Be open to better ways of executing the mission. If you make a bad decision, then own that decision, and don’t be afraid to adapt and adjust. Be sure to model that it’s okay to modify a course of action. We can actually gain respect when we admit that we don’t have all the answers. Seek team member input and ask for their ideas. We need to show our team that we value their expertise and that they have a critical role in the organization. This means taking the time to ask them for their thoughts before you offer your own thoughts and ideas. Some of the most creative ideas can come from our team members because they’re often closest to the problem. We need to listen to our team’s challenges and concerns, find out what they value, and encourage them to bring their ideas to the table.
Own any missteps and gain credibility in the process. If we set the example in admitting mistakes, then our team is more likely to own up to errors and even identify minor issues sooner before they become significant for the organization. Strive to achieve a growth mindset where mistakes and failures are opportunities for improvement.
Adopt a Fighter Pilot Debrief
In a debrief, we talk about our mission objectives. Did we meet them? Where did we succeed and where did we fail? We check our rank at the door so the more junior members can input freely and can provide feedback to the more senior members in the flight. We hold each other accountable. We don’t take it personally because it’s important that we all learn from each other’s mistakes. By shifting our focus to identify suboptimal outcomes (not just talking about what we did well), identify their causes, and act on lessons learned, we drive cultural change within our organization.
Debriefs are a powerful accountability tool for any team or organization. They enable us to fail forward, learning from our failures and mistakes and those of others without judgment. When the mission doesn’t go as planned, when we make mistakes or have failures, debriefs enable us the space to deconstruct, adapt, and adjust our actions and behaviors going forward. To do this, we review our mission in detail. We debrief the objectives we set in our flight briefing. If we don’t meet one of the objectives, then we drill down to examine why, identify contributing factors, and determine the root cause. Once we understand the root cause, then we talk about lessons learned and the instructional fix. What should have happened? And how can we do it better next time? We walk out of the debrief as better pilots, and we share our lessons with the rest of our team to elevate the performance of the team.
If you want to lead with courage, then cultivate a culture where accountability is both expected and desired. Accountability requires courage and ensures our team will perform at their best.
Colonel Kim “KC” Campbell served in the Air Force for 24 years as a fighter pilot and senior military leader. Kim is a keynote speaker and bestselling author sharing her story about a life changing combat experience while weaving in ideas and lessons about leadership, teamwork, perseverance, and decision making in stressful environments. Kim’s new book, “Flying in the Face of Fear: A Fighter Pilot’s Lessons on Leading with Courage” is now available everywhere fine books are sold. Follow her on Twitter @kchawg987