BEING ACCOUNTABLE

On November 22, 1968 Japan Airlines Flight 2, a DC 8, was scheduled to land at San Francisco International airport. In heavy fog, its Captain Kohei Asoh, not adequately trained on the plane’s new flight director, landed his aircraft in San Francisco Bay two and a half miles short of the runway. Fortunately, none of the plane’s passengers or crew were killed.

Not long after the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Japan Airlines held a press conference attended by reporters and a bevy of lawyers anxious to hear what many suspected would by the usual finger-pointing “who’s to blame” exercise.  The first witness was Captain Asho himself and the first question put to him was simply “how did this happen”? As cameras flashed, the Captain spoke: “Asoh fuck up” is all he said. His audience reportedly looked on in shock as they realized that suddenly there were few questions left for anybody to ask.

Author Jerry Harvey in his book “The Abilene Paradox” dedicates chapter 5, entitled “Captain Asoh and the Concept of Grace” to this remarkably honest acceptance of responsibility. Harvey called the Captain’s three word response “the Asoh defense” and its candor remains a staple of  management consulting advice.

We find a similar striking example of accepting responsibility in a fascinating article in “The New Yorker” (5/25/95 pp. 45-53) entitled “The Fifty-Nine Story Crisis”. It chronicles the potentially career-ending response of William LeMessurier, one of America’s leading structural engineers, when he discovered that the supports he designed for the skyscraper-like Citicorp Center in Manhattan, NY were potentially flawed and might not survive  the city’s occasional high wind storms.

That these stories remains so memorable, says a great deal about how much we admire the honest acceptance of responsibility and accountability when we see it and how disappointed, frustrated, and angry we often feel when we see so many trying to avoid it.

During my management career, few subjects generated more heated discussion among my colleagues than the absence of accountability for mistakes, bad decisions, and the flagrant refusal of some to do as they were told. But what can any of us do as individuals to make some difference when it comes to accountability in the larger world in which we operate? I believe a great deal.

If you are a follower of this blog, you already know my thinking concerning the fecklessness of an individual attempt to achieve wholesale systemic change. I simply do not believe systems change whole-cloth and certainly not based on one person’s example.  Rather systems evolve. And they evolve because a critical mass of individuals start behaving in ways that challenge an old norm until it eventually becomes the new norm.

Captain Asoh and William LeMessurier, at the time, may or may not have been representative of their organization’s culture when it came to assuming responsibility for their actions. Whatever, they acted as individuals and their example remains powerful to this day.

Managers and non-managers alike often underestimate just how much influence — for good or ill — their behavior has on those who observe them in action. As designated authorities, managers in particular, are powerful role models for those around them. Consequently, what we do as managers is carefully observed and frequently emulated.

The best managers know the importance of being accountable for their actions and act accordingly. They understand that a lack of accountability displayed by others is never a sufficient excuse to justify similar behavior of their own.  And they believe deeply that their example has the power to become contagious, because the underlying message in their behavior is that accountability must always begin with us.

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