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Who holds you accountable?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Matthew Groves
  • 386th Expeditionary Operations Group
I would like to take this opportunity to present my views on a critical attribute for military, professional, and personal success; that attribute is accountability.

We can easily understand how accountability ties into each of our core values, and if asked, we would likely universally respond that accountability is a trait we desire in our leaders, and hope to display ourselves. In reality however, theory and practice diverge, and it is much easier to "talk the talk" than to "walk the walk."

After all, accountability is tricky to execute well. Some people can easily accept blame, to the point of constantly searching for their own imperfections. Some are quick to point out the mistakes of others, even habitually refusing to accept any responsibility themselves. We probably all know someone in each of these categories.

Like so many challenges in our lives, success lies in the balance. As professional guardians of our Nation's security, we must uphold daily the oath we have sworn. When (not if) we make mistakes, we must own those mistakes, repair the damage we've caused, press ahead with the mission, and educate our peers so they can avoid the same pitfalls. At the same time, we owe it to each other to provide honest feedback and constructive criticism. This is often the hardest part of leadership, due to the real potential for confrontation, but if I am not meeting expectations, and you fail to hold me to the standards, who is more at fault?

This concept is neither new nor difficult to understand, so how is accountability so easily lost? The answer, ironically, stems from how we deal with success.
It is easy to believe that as people, we are most susceptible to ethical compromise when we are at the emotional low points of our lives; that we would only exhibit poor moral judgment if we had nothing left to lose. I am convinced (though this idea surely did not originate with me) the opposite is true; it is when we are at the top of our game, at the pinnacles of our careers, when we are most at risk to stumble. And of course if we stumble at the top, we have much farther to fall.

We only have to glance at the headlines for evidence of this. Most of us are familiar with Tiger Woods, General David Petraeus, and any number of Hollywood celebrities or Wall Street executives who have irreparably damaged their reputations. How many other highly successful self-destructions are we unaware of only because they were not exposed in the national media spotlight? I bet the statistics would be sobering.

But what causes this, and more importantly, how can we prevent it from happening to us? I believe it has everything to do with accountability. When you're at the top, who are you accountable to? Perhaps a better question is "who holds you accountable?" What keeps you from believing you deserve something that you don't, or that rules don't apply to you? If my answer is that I'm too smart, too righteous, or too dedicated for this to happen to me, then I'm saying I'm really only accountable to myself. Cue the warning sirens.

The good news for us, as members of the military, is the solution to this is easier than for most people. The best way to prevent failures of accountability is to have a strong, honest, trustworthy group of peers who are equally supportive and critical, as required by the situation. This is, quite literally, your "Band of Brothers." Normally, this type of relationship takes years and significant effort to develop, but the fundamental aspects of our service accelerate the process. The stress we regularly work under, the extended separations from our families, and the importance of our mission, especially in a deployed environment, naturally promote formation of these peer groups.

If you don't have these relationships, look around you. Identify the men and women you truly respect; those who exhibit unwavering character. They will not be hard to find. Have the difficult conversations with them, talk about the things you're uncomfortable talking about. Build trust, make them promise to hold you accountable, and reciprocate in kind. Start now, and maintain those relationships for the rest of your career. They will serve you well.

Though at times the Air Force feels like an immovable, unemotional machine, remember it is, fundamentally, our Air Force. We are responsible for fixing what needs to be fixed, changing what needs to be changed, and taking care of one another in the process. These are rarely easy tasks, but when we are accountable, and when we hold one another accountable, so that we all meet our responsibilities and carry the load together, there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

Thank you for your continued effort and dedication; I am honored to serve with you.

(Lt. Col. Groves is the Deputy Commander of the 386th Expeditionary Operations Group and offers this weeks leadership commentary)