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Leaders Set the Standard of Accountability & Performance

You’d think that a CEO of a major airline who is earning over $12 million a year would understand this basic principle of leadership:

Leaders set the upper limit of accountability for their organization.

No one will take accountability to a greater degree than their leader does.

Apparently, Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau hasn’t learned this.

According to a new report, Air Canada notched the worst on-time performance among large airlines in North America in 2023, maintaining their last place ranking from 2022.

But that’s not the problem, its a symptom of the real problem: poor leadership.

When Rousseau acknowledged Air Canada’s last place ranking, he followed up with a list of lame excuses such as bad weather, global supply chain issues, and high load factors creating more “spilling traffic” after flights are cancelled.

Those excuses “ring hollow,” according to Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights advocacy group. “WestJet is flying the same weather, the same air traffic control environments,” he said.

John Gradek, who teaches aviation management at McGill University and who worked at Air Canada for 18 years, agreed. “Delta does value on time performance quite highly. Air Canada does not,” he claimed, stating that its last-place results partly reflect business decisions around scheduling and route choices.

When Leaders Make Excuses, So Will Everyone Else

Corporate culture is a function of leader’s behavior because, in a hierarchy, everybody looks up to determine what behavior is tolerated and rewarded.

Presumably, Rousseau will discuss on time performance at the next executive meeting and demand explanations and better performance. Since he has already signaled that making excuses is the way to handle problems, you can bet that’s precisely what his executive team will give him. And when his executives discuss on time performance with their direct reports, they’ll certainly offer creative excuses for the company’s lackluster performance and why they can’t do much better.

Even if Air Canada executives try to hold employees accountable for the company’s poor results, it’ll never stick. Employees will argue with management about why it’s not their fault instead of providing solutions. If the CEO won’t take any accountability, why should they?

Here is a critical leadership lesson that most people in leadership positions never learn:

Leaders must earn the moral authority to hold others accountable.

Before others will allow their leader to hold them accountable, they must first see their leader hold themself accountable.

Accountability Starts at The Top

Great leaders set the standard of accountability and performance by taking ownership of problems and empowering others to find solutions. They do this by teaching their team the difference between explanations and excuses.

Explanation: An analysis of all the factors that contributed to the problem, including personal mistakes, to identify solutions.

Excuse: A justification for poor results to absolve oneself of accountability.

Explanations are helpful. Excuses are not.

  1. Great leaders teach accountability first by example, then by words, in three simple steps:
  2. Resist the urge to blame or make excuses.
  3. Acknowledge how they contributed to the problem.
    Focus on fixing processes, not punishing people.

Creating a culture of accountability and high performance starts at the top. You can’t inspire accountability in others until you model it yourself.

Accountable leadership is the keystone of a culture of excellence and high performance. When leaders don’t model accountability, organizations collapse on themselves under the strain of finger pointing, excuses, and no progress. But when they do, the whole organization is strengthened as everyone becomes more willing to take ownership of problems and solutions.


This article first appeared in CEOWORLD Magazine.


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