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Why this type of self-discipline will make you a better leader

People will respond positively when you show you’re the type of person who follows promises with real action.

Why this type of self-discipline will make you a better leader
[Source illustration: PCH-Vector/Getty Images]

Personal accountability is the foundation of mental fitness, which is critical for effective leadership. I’m not talking about everyday actions. I’m talking about a radical level of accountability. You stop blaming other people and/or circumstances for how you feel or what has happened to you.

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Typically, when we say that someone isn’t accountable, we mean their behavior, actions, and outcomes are not reliable. We pinpoint what they did or did not do; the result that they did not achieve. I think that definition is a good starting point, but it does not go far enough. My definition: You are accountable for not only your behavior, actions, and outcomes, but also for your thoughts and your moods.

Personal accountability is one of the five muscles of mental fitness. When you practice accountability, you put an end to unproductive, reflexive patterns of thoughts and behaviors, such as:

  • Blaming others
  • Defending yourself
  • Procrastinating or avoiding
  • Rationalizing and making excuses

These are human reactions, and they occur in all of us. But it’s what you choose to do with them that matters.

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Personal accountability is a choice. And there are three strategies for getting there.

STRATEGY #1: STOP YOUR STORIES

When was the last time someone told you something they were upset about? Take a moment to recall what they told you. I would bet a whole lot of money that:

  • The story was about something that created difficulty for the storyteller.
  • Whatever that difficulty was, it was said to be caused by someone else, or possibly by circumstances or events.
  • The storyteller’s mood was catabolic.
  • The storyteller was blameless of any wrongdoing—or even was the hero of the story.

Was I close?

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We all tell these kinds of stories—to other people and ourselves. The stories come from a feeling of pain, anger, disappointment, frustration, or hurt. We tell these stories to feel better. To “win.” To be the hero. To look good.

Stop telling these stories. They are the exact opposite of what personal accountability is about. There are many variations, but they are all forms of personal defense mechanisms. They keep you from having to look at, or acknowledge, your part in what happened.

When you notice yourself telling these stories, stop and acknowledge to yourself that you are out of alignment and you can make a different move. You can choose personal accountability.

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STRATEGY #2: OWN YOUR STUFF

There are people who suffer terrible things, and their lives are miserable until the end of their days. There are others who suffer the same horrible things, yet they rebuild their lives in powerful ways. What’s the difference? One of the most powerful elements among the people who thrive is their mindset. They have embraced the thinking of, I can, I must, I will.

It is easy to identify people who are stuck in a helpless, hopeless mindset. Nothing ever goes right for them; nothing ever works out. They are quick to tell you all about how someone else—or bad luck, or the unfair system—is causing their troubles. They are resigned, apathetic, depressed. And you probably avoid them. They drain your energy.

However, it is not so obvious when your own mindset has flavors of victimhood. It is entirely possible for you to have a victim mentality about some things but not others. But it is victimhood nonetheless, situational as it may seem, and it hinders your well-being, performance, and overall success.

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With personal accountability, you will not see yourself as a victim. Sure, you may acknowledge difficult circumstances, and that you feel confused or anxious or unsure of how to proceed at times. But when you find yourself in those situations, what you do next is to quickly determine what you have control over and what you don’t. Even if there is absolutely nothing you can do about the circumstances, you recognize that you always have a choice and control over your thoughts and moods. So that’s where you place your attention.

STRATEGY #3: BE IMPECCABLE WITH YOUR PROMISES

There are three kinds of promises. When you make a strong promise, you have every intention of keeping it. There is no doubt you are going to do what you said you would. Someone at work needs your help and asks, “Can you get that to me by Friday?” You are going to deliver before the end of the day Friday.

When you make a shallow promise, it will sound to others exactly like you are making a strong promise, that your yes is absolute: “Yes, you will get it to them by Friday.” But your thoughts tell a different story. You think: “I am going to keep this promise . . . unless Jim doesn’t come to me with that other stuff. Because if that goes down, that’s going to take priority. But, hey, we don’t know yet if that is going to happen. I won’t worry about that now. But if that happens, there is no way I can help.” Mentally, you reserve a private out for yourself because you were never committed to the promise (in spite of what you said).

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A criminal promise will also sound like a strong promise. But you have absolutely no intention of keeping this promise—and you know that at the time of making it. You are just saying the words and going through the motions. “Yeah, I will say yes, because it is easier than dealing with the blowback of saying no. And who knows? Maybe I will have some time, but I doubt it. Besides, she is always inventing fake deadlines, so I probably have a few more days.”

It’s amazing how we can rationalize shallow and criminal promises. If you are going to embody personal accountability, you have got to stop making them. Whether you intend to break your promises or “it just happens” through your lack of attention, doing so will ultimately destroy others’ trust in you and ruin your personal brand.

When difficult things happen, the lens of personal accountability reminds us that regardless of the external impacts, we are still in control of our reactions to them. In other words, we have a choice.

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Adapted from Leading Lightly: Lower Your Stress, Think with Clarity, and Lead with Ease. Copyright © 2022 by Jody Michael. Reprinted here with permission from Greenleaf Book Group Press.

Jody Michael is an executive coach, author, and the CEO of her company, Jody Michael Associates.

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