One of the biggest challenges leaders face is embracing the concept of total accountability. Total accountability requires aiming change at the one area around which we have total control: ourselves.

This can be a tough pill to swallow. It’s much easier to blame others, point the finger, or avoid consequences. However, taking total accountability can be one of the most liberating and profound actions we can do to create change.

Exactly What is Total Accountability?

Let’s start with defining accountability, which Merriam-Webster describes as an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions. This could mean admitting we made a mistake, acknowledging our shortcomings, or accepting a consequence for our actions.

When taking total accountability, however, we accept responsibility for our team’s actions. In other words, we see our team as a reflection of ourselves. When something goes wrong, leaders ask a simple question:

If this situation is 100% a result of my behavior, what am I doing to create the situation?

This concept applies to many leadership roles, including managers, executives, parents, or any role in which there is a leader in some position of power or authority. For many leaders, this is a very difficult question to ask. It’s easy to find fault in other people and look at their contribution to the problem. It’s much harder to find fault in ourselves.

Asking this question has changed how I facilitate classes. For example, if a group is quiet and disengaged, I start to notice ways that it’s actually me who is tired or distracted. If the group is resistant, I see ways that I’m closed down or disconnected. If a student doesn’t understand something, I become aware of how I’m not being clear enough or perhaps impatient. In almost every situation, when I start to change, the group changes in response.

I’ve noticed similar changes as a parent when I ask this question. In times when our son has seemed more withdrawn, my wife and I have then noticed how we’ve been more withdrawn or disconnected. Instead of focusing on his behavior, we focus on our own. After a short period of consciously changing our behavior, we’ve noticed our son respond accordingly without ever having said a word to him about it. Seeing our son’s behavior as a reflection of both the state of our relationship and how we’re showing up as parents has been a key to making us better parents.

Total Accountability and the Blame Game

Taking this idea a step further, leaders who take total accountability switch their focus to their own shortcomings instead of other’s shortcomings. As I mentioned above, we have very little control over how others behave. On the other hand, we have 100% control over how we behave. Therefore, if we want to create change, we have the most leverage around what is under our control (Stephen Covey’s Circle of Influence model describes this concept in more detail).

This means that we start by cleaning up our own side of the street instead of blaming, pointing the finger, or passing judgment. We stop playing the blame game and start taking a “fearless moral inventory” around our behaviors. We stop pointing the finger and instead notice the four more pointing back at us.

So, if you put energy towards judging someone else as dishonest, it means looking at ways that you are dishonest.

If you focus on how someone else is selfish, it means looking at ways that you’re selfish.

If you point the finger at someone who is lazy, obnoxious, or greedy, it means looking at how you’re lazy, obnoxious or greedy.

We can all act these ways at times. Unless you’re a saint, you’re not immune to behaving in ways that hurt others or let them down. You might express it differently, but it doesn’t mean that you’re not also guilty of the underlying traits. (Note that sometimes we overcompensate and go to the other extreme, such as working too hard to avoid being seen as lazy or giving too much to others to avoid being seen as selfish. This reactive behavior causes harm in other ways, beginning with harming ourselves.) At the same time, when we recognize these behaviors and own them, we have the power to change them. In the words of Gandhi, we become the change we wish to see instead of waiting for others to change.

The Power of Taking Total Accountability

The moment we take total accountability, everything changes. No longer focused on what other people are doing, we can direct our full attention to making ourselves better. Doing this requires courage, vulnerability, and honesty. We need to shift the focus inward and let go of worrying about what others are doing.

This doesn’t mean not holding others accountable or letting them off the hook. It means holding ourselves accountable first so that we can then be humble enough to hold others accountable with genuine empathy and concern instead of judgment and blame. When we hold ourselves accountable first, we see people as people, not objects. It also makes it hard to maintain a position of moral superiority and thinking that we’re better than someone else. Think about it: if someone was upset with you, which approach would make you more likely to change? Them judging or blaming you, or them showing humility, empathy, and concern?

To practice taking total accountability, consider the following:


  • List the qualities or behaviors that you don’t like in someone you despise or who irritates you. In what ways do you exhibit those same qualities or behaviors?
  • Notice something that frustrates you about your team, group, or family. What are you doing to contribute to that dynamic?
  • What would you have to face in yourself if you stopped blaming, judging, or pointing the finger at other people?
  • If you only focused on your behavior and no one else’s for one full day, what would happen?
  • What changes do you notice when you take 100% responsibility for your part in a given situation, both in yourself and in the other person/people?