“Authority,” “Responsibility,” and “Accountability” are three terms that are used frequently in connection with positions of leadership. What exactly do these terms mean and how are they related?
Authority is defined as “a power or right, delegated or given.” In this sense, the person or company that hires a leader vests him with the authority to manage or direct a particular operation. It is expected that this individual will exercise the full scope of his authority to properly, profitably, and professionally manage the operation.
Responsibility is defined as “a particular burden of obligation upon a person who is responsible.” Responsible is defined as “answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power or control.” Therefore, a leader is responsible and has responsibility for the operation for which she has been given authority.
Accountability is defined as “subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; answerable.” A leader is answerable for the performance of the operation for which he has authority and is responsible.
Authority may be delegated to subordinates. For example, a general manager may delegate the authority to collect delinquent accounts to the controller. The controller then has the right to perform tasks associated with collection, such as sending past due notices, charging finance charges on delinquent accounts, and recommending bad debt write-off for seriously overdue accounts. However, even though the general manager delegated the authority, he or she still has the responsibility to ensure that collections are done properly. As the saying goes, “You can delegate authority, but not responsibility.” Even when you delegate, you are ultimately responsible for your organization’s performance.
As a leader, you are accountable for those functions and tasks that have been delegated to you. Likewise, should you delegate any functions or tasks to subordinates, you must ensure that they are held accountable for properly performing them. This requires that you properly explain your expectations to subordinates.
This is most easily done when performance parameters are objective, say telling an advertising executive she must retain her major accounts or else she’ll be replaced. More often, performance parameters are more complex and involve subjective evaluations. Regardless of the difficulties in defining these parameters, it must be done. Otherwise, there is no way to hold a subordinate accountable for results. It is for this reason that performance standards must be defined. Often, detailed benchmarks, consistently and conscientiously tracked over time, will provide the most meaningful measures of performance.
Excerpted from Leadership on the Line - The Workbook, Ed Rehkopf, Clarity Publications, 2009
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