: Responsible leadership unleashes sustainable success, allowing leaders to balance accountability, responsibility, and authority. Responsible leaders understand that authority is a commodity they must manage and spend carefully to ensure it stimulates accountability instead of stifling it. Intelligent leaders know they cannot delegate or share accountability. They must cultivate it through exemplary leadership and well-balanced responsibility.

“Leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses.” – Mitt Romney.

Responsible leadership is essential for long-term, sustainable individual and organizational success. Intelligent leaders understand that leadership is not a rank or a position of personal privilege. Rather, it is a responsibility that entails some privilege: the privilege of effecting positive change on individuals, an organization, and perhaps society.

“Leadership starts with understanding responsibility.” – Rick Warren.

hand in hand

Leadership and responsibility always go hand-in-hand.

Responsible leaders are aware of their influence and commit to using it to drive positive change. As a leadership coaching expert, here’s how I’d characterize responsible leadership:

  • Observing strong ethical principles
  • Exhibiting empathy and humility
  • Fostering a culture of transparency
  • Being accountable
  • Maintaining integrity
  • Balancing success with social and environmental considerations
  • Prioritizing the well-being of employees and people in general

Responsible leadership aims for equitable, sustainable success, and it looks to balance authority and accountability.

Balancing authority and accountability is a worthy goal and aspiration for every leader worth his or her salt. Accountability is outcome-focused, while responsibility is task-oriented. Yet leaders must find ways to balance the two, creating a working environment of psychological safety conducive to outstanding and sustainable results.

In this article, I analyze this challenge by defining the roles of accountability and authority in leadership. Then, I provide solutions and strategies to help you strike a balance between the two, culminating with a case study.

Understanding Responsible Leadership


Responsible leadership is a form of leadership that aims for ethical, socially responsible, and sustainable results. For a responsible leader, making progress is as important as how that progress comes. From the perspective of an executive coaching specialist, the core principles of responsible leadership are:

  • Transparency. Responsible leaders understand the need for open, consistent communication.
  • Ethical behavior. Leading by example requires high moral standards.
  • Leadership responsibility demands the inclusion of all stakeholders in the decision-making process.
  • Social impact. Responsible leaders aim to make a lasting positive impact on the lives of the communities they touch.
  • Accountability. Taking responsibility for decisions and their consequences is natural for responsible leaders.
  • Inclusivity. Responsible leadership understands the value of diverse perspectives and aims to grant a voice to every stakeholder.
  • Responsible leaders understand others’ perspectives and treat everyone with respect.
  • From the perspective of a responsible leader, success is only a success if it’s sustainable long-term.
  • Risk management. It is a leader’s responsibility to identify the governance, environmental, social, and ethical risks their businesses entail and to address these risks.

Responsible decision-making is a direct consequence of balancing authority and accountability. Authority endows leaders with decision-making powers. Accountability ensures their decisions are ethical, transparent, and responsible. By skillfully balancing accountability and authority, leaders can build trust, empower employees, manage risks, spur innovation, and build positive organizational cultures.

To ensure different stakeholders also understand and prioritize accountability and responsible decision-making, leaders can:

  • Set clear values.
  • Lead by example.
  • Be transparent and accountable.
  • Seek input.
  • Monitor and report.
  • Consider diverging stakeholder interests and balance them.
  • Provide ethics training to employees.
  • Be alert to evolving ethical challenges.

The Role of Accountability in Leadership

“It’s easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.”- Josiah Stamp.

Accountability is the acknowledgment of responsibility. When you are accountable for something, you answer for the outcomes you create, your decisions, and your errors. In the context of leadership, accountability takes on additional significance.


  • Ensures responsibility. Accountability establishes clear roles and expectations for everyone in an organization. Leaders and employees know what they must do and how they can measure their contributions.
  • Builds trust. When leaders take ownership of their decisions, actions, and results, they prove they’re reliable, predictable, and honest. Thus, they build trust, facilitating employee engagement.
  • Drives performance. Clear goals and expectations allow people – leaders and employees – to focus on excellence and deliver the best possible results.
  • Improves decisions. Accountability encourages ethical decision-making, allowing leaders to make decisions while considering their likely consequences. Accountable leaders take ownership of their decisions, knowing they own the outcomes as much as they own the decisions.
  • Facilitates transparency. A culture of accountability requires organizations and leaders to make decisions openly and communicate all the variables they may entail. Transparency boosts confidence and eliminates opportunities for errors and conflicts.

From the perspective of organizational cultures, few leadership actions have a deeper impact on promoting a positive work environment than exemplary accountability. Accountable leaders live and breathe the values and priorities of their organizations.

The Role of Authority in Leadership

“The key to successful leadership is influence, not authority.” – Kenneth A. Blanchard.

In the context of modern, intelligent leadership, authority is a delicate issue, requiring skilled balancing with responsibility and accountability. As a business coaching expert, I try to convey a sense of responsibility concerning authority. In some form, authority will always be a part of the leadership equation. What form it takes and how we wield it makes all the difference.


Authority will always be part of leadership in some form.

We can delegate a task to an employee and hold this person accountable for the outcome. Accountability makes no sense without an adequate delegation of authority that makes the accomplishment of the task possible. This example illustrates the delicate interdependence between responsibility, accountability, and authority.

Instead of building a monopoly on authority, leaders should view it as a commodity they must manage well for optimal outcomes. On the other hand, leaders must also be aware that they must earn this commodity before spending it.

How does a leader earn authority? Their position lends leaders some authority they can expand through expertise and by winning the trust of their employees.

The responsible use of authority in leadership is often a matter of leadership maturity and experience. Successful leaders know how to acquire and use authority, treating it as a precious leadership resource and tool.

Balancing Accountability and Authority

Authority is the power to define tasks and assign them to people, telling them what to do and how. People in positions of authority make decisions that affect others. Responsibility is the obligation to perform a task and generate a positive outcome. Accountability is accepting responsibility and answerability to complete an assignment to a positive outcome.

Leaders can delegate but not share authority. They can share but not delegate responsibility. And they cannot share or delegate accountability. Leaders looking to balance accountability and authority must understand these variables to overcome challenges like:

  • Resistance to accountability
  • Conflicting priorities
  • Handling uncertainty
  • Managing expectations
  • Embracing change
  • Building trust
  • Fostering motivation
  • Managing the power dynamics

Here’s what you can do to balance accountability and authority effectively:

  • Make your expectations clear. Accountability requires clear goals. And intelligent leaders know that a clear set of values can also help. People who know what they have to achieve and how are much more likely to assume accountability for their actions and decisions.
  • Focus on trust. Trust is the hard currency of leadership. As a leader, you must earn it and spend it wisely. Transparent, accountable organizational cultures facilitate trust, supporting effective, intelligent leadership.
  • Give and receive feedback. Two-way feedback is effective communication. To balance accountability and authority, leaders must seek feedback from their employees while providing them with constructive feedback. The ability to give and seek feedback is one of the essential leadership traits.
  • Lead by example. Showing the way and leading the way is always more effective than pointing out the way. To ensure their employees are accountable and know how to wield and handle authority, leaders must provide a solid example in this sense.

Responsible Leadership in Action

Ford Motor Company’s Alan Mulally turned around the struggling car maker by delegating more authority and empowering his teams while maintaining accountability. The result was impressive: Ford recovered from its corporate tailspin, stepping onto the path of sustainable growth.

When we dissect Gandhi’s exemplary leadership, we tend to focus on his integrity, humility, and commitment to nonviolent resistance. The driving force behind these leadership virtues is accountability.

Gandhi always remained accountable to his principles, followers, and his goals of social justice and freedom. He was open and transparent. He shared leadership, focusing on learning and self-reflection to re-evaluate his accountability constantly.


Leadership is about assuming responsibility, sharing it if needed, delegating authority, and fostering accountability on every organizational level. Intelligent leaders must learn to balance authority with accountability to empower, motivate, and inspire their teams effectively.

Can you strike an adequate balance between authority and accountability? Reflect on your leadership style and be honest with yourself to identify areas where you can improve.

Responsible leadership can boost your organization’s culture, performance, and employee engagement.


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