The weight of responsibility and accountability


Responsibility and accountability are at times erroneously used as synonyms when they do not mean the same thing.

COME ABOARD SERIES with Moses Tsimukeni Mahlangu

One may argue that looking after his family is his responsibility. On the other hand, an accountant is held accountable for the financial transactions of an entity that he/she works for.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines responsibility as the state or fact of being responsible, it is authority, the ability to act independently, as well as making decisions. A responsible person is expected to account to a person(s) regarding the assignment entrusted to him/her. Being responsible demands that one be morally accountable, be capable of rational conduct. Other attributes of being responsible are a good credit, position or repute, respectable and evidently trustworthy.

An accountable person is responsible, is required to account for one’s conduct. Upholding the principles of being responsible and accountable is a tall order at individual level. It is even more demanding to leaders. A broad definition of leadership refers to doing things through others. The relationship between the principal and agent is a good example.

Assignments done by the agent in the name of the principal are as good as having been done by the principal person. The law of agency is very clear on this principle.

However, there are limitations to this principal/agent relationship. In a situation where the agent performs duties outside the terms of reference or engages in illegalities, then the principal is absolved from any responsibility and accountability accruing therefrom.

Leaders at times find themselves reeling under the weight of both responsibility and accountability. Over and above being called upon to answer for their actions, they may at times be demanded to be responsible and accountable for their followers’ actions.

Given the differing dispositions of mankind, the leader needs to be multi-pronged in dealing with followers. Leadership gurus have suggested leadership styles, like autocratic, laissez-faire, participatory and situational, to name a few. Practice informs that the situational style of leadership is preferable in most cases.

The rationale being that the leader must adopt a leadership style that is relevant to a given situation and individual(s).

It is therefore not surprising to find leaders behaving or conducting themselves strangely. The weight of accountability and responsibility dictates so.

Pure leadership is a difficult task for infinite beings whilst here below. A responsible leader exercises authority without being authoritarian. He independently acts and makes decisions. When results of decisions made are not as would be expected, the leader owns up to both the decision and the results.

This steadfastness leads to level two, which is accountability. The ability to explain, justify (if so convinced) that even if the results are bad, the intention was good. Accountable leaders benchmark themselves against set objectives.

The inability to acknowledge one’s weakness or limitations builds a separating wall between leaders and followership. The knack for a blank cheque has created masters out of otherwise well-meaning leaders.

Followership may also contribute to the creation of monster leadership. The infallibility syndrome — belief that leaders are God-appointed and therefore don’t make mistakes and deifying leaders — is another cancer that has eaten up many a nation.

Servant leadership, the Thomas Sankara philosophy, has been found to produce a win-win situation. Situations, as alluded to earlier on, may force a leader to take a given style of leadership. However, this approach must be guided by the situation prevailing at that given time. The leadership style should be informed by the prevailing situation.

One may forebear leaders for conducting themselves at times seemingly awkward. The weight of responsibility and accountability tends to overtax their energy and mental resources. Leaders must be different in terms of conduct, honesty, dependability and assertion.

lMoses Tsimukeni Mahlangu writes in his own capacity and can be reached on for comments.