A project or initiative begins. Do we have the authority to lead?

An initiative deviates. Do we have accountability in results?

Authority and accountability are necessary companions, yet they often are strangers. An imbalance of authority and accountability creates challenges for an organization and a leader. When lopsided, frustration rises.

leadership authority accountability

Imagine being given new leadership responsibility. We are excited about the opportunity. As we begin to lead, we find out that we do not have the authority to make decisions. Our excitement diminishes quickly. More importantly, our engagement begins to fade, and we always go up the hierarchy before any decision is made.

Leading with the right balance of authority and accountability seems very logical. Why are there so many illogical conditions then?

A Leadership Exploration of Authority and Accountability

A two-by-two matrix illustrates what happens when the balance between authority and accountability is misaligned. When three of the four scenarios create issues, no wonder we get lost. It takes effort to gain the right balance.

leadership authority and accountabilityLet’s explore.

Vague Authority, Vague Accountability

When a leader lacks clarity of authority and accountability, they are being setup for failure. No meaningful decisions can be made. When inaction occurs, no change happens. Without accountability, people stay stuck in place, and the culture begins to crumble.

Little success can happen for a leader or an organization with vague accountability and authority.

Vague Authority, Clear Accountability

When a leader lacks authority yet is accountable for results, an impasse occurs. Nothing gets done, and blame gets attached to you. Stalemate, finger-pointing. Worse, organizational stagnation and extreme politics.

In some ways, this may be the most frustrating place for a leader to be. The expectation is that you must perform, yet you do not have the authority to perform. You become stuck in a muddle of waiting for someone else to say yes or no while you work in place. No one wins in this scenario; no one creates well in this situation.

Clear Authority, Vague Accountability

As a leader, you are given all the authority you need to pursue certain goals and projects. All is good, right? You can make decisions, tell others what to do, and make things happen. An important element is missing – accountability.

Without accountability, goals can become self-centered. Focusing on what is right for the company, customers, and stakeholders gets lost in what feels right for a specific leader. Without accountability, you get financial meltdowns, widespread layoffs, confused customers, and dropping market share. What happens too often is the leader gets a big check, and the rest are left holding an empty accounts. Peril for many.

Accountability delivers check-and-balance to authority. You want to believe all leaders will be good and focus on the greater good. We know not all human nature plays this way.

Clear Authority, Clear Accountability

When a leader has clarity of mission and authority, our soul feels empowered. When a leader has clear authority and clear accountability, our mind is engaged. With our soul and mind allied, we connect with others, passing on chunks of authority and accountability. A system comes together to pursue the mission. More than being systematic, an activated culture springs forward to collaborate and check with each other to ensure the right progress is being made.

Vibrant authority is our fuel, and strong accountability is our mile marker.


Steps forward and backward will still happen, yet we recover much faster. We learn, adapt, pursue, and repeat an accountable cycle. A flow of work happens. Progress happens.

With clear authority and accountability, we will not always be successful, but we will know where we stand and begin to work with others to recover and move forward again. Vibrant authority is our fuel, and strong accountability is our mile marker. Go. Do. Check. Repeat.

Getting the Right Balance – Accountability and Authority

Tying authority and accountability together seems so straightforward, yet we always seem to be missing one or the other. Or, fuzziness is present one or the other or both. Why can something so simple be so messed up?

What happens is ego of one.

What happens is breezy shifts in direction.

What happens is lack of vision.

What happens is cloudy expectations.

What happens is irresponsibility.

What happens is no delegation.

What happens is no systems of measure.

What happens are a lot of excuses.

We need to implement the right leadership balance between authority and accountability.

Giving and Receiving Authority and Accountability

Leaders need to step up. The necessary leadership pair are given and received. On both sides of this equation, we have certain responsibilities.

When giving authority and accountability, ensure both are given and understood. Be clear with the mission, the boundaries, expectations, and worthy principles to be engaged. A deeper conversation about both is required. A hallway conversation or email will not cut it. Give both completely and freely but with a clarity of the higher mission, expectation, and importance of the work ahead.

When receiving authority and accountability, ask questions to ensure understanding of the mission, boundaries, and expectations. Discuss the leadership principles that are critical to the success of what is being undertaken. If there is a perceived imbalance between the necessary pair, ask more questions and ensure accountability and authority are aligned in clarity. Ensuring a positive alignment between authority and accountability is called, simply, being leadership prepared.

Authority and accountability are a series in which parts are distributed to other team members. We are stronger as a collaborative group than a self-absorbed individual. As we pursue our responsibility, we distribute our authority and accountability to talented team members so they can engage and help achieve the goals. Wrapped around the team is a sense of real accountability and possibility.

For new leaders, when given authority, ensure you know what the metrics of progress are. When given accountability, ensure you have the appropriate authority to match. Accept leadership roles that have the right mix of authority and accountability. Otherwise, arrange a time with the appropriate person to gain clarity and discuss why both will increase the opportunity for success.

For experienced leaders, go the extra mile in releasing authority and defining accountability. Communicate with clarity and trust. Trust fully and verify as the initiative unfold. Be open-minded, growth-oriented, and committed to sound principles of integrity.

Authority provides power while accountability keeps power centered. Be a centered leader. Be a leader that gains progress in a responsible way.

What happens when you have clarity in only one – authority or accountability? How do you correct the imbalance?