Trip of the Secretary of Defense

Most of what I write, and what others write on similar platforms, focuses on the encouraging and inspirational side of leadership such as motivation, building trust, and developing the next generation of leaders. It’s fun to write and read about these topics because they make us, our people, and our organizations better. They’re also easy to write about. What’s challenging to write about and get people discussing are the less-stimulating sides to leadership such as holding others accountable and enforcing standards. I can already feel the dread overcome me as I write those words…

Critical characteristics for any field to be considered a true profession include high individual and collective responsibility and mutual accountability. In the military, this includes standards like professional appearance and wear of uniforms, physical fitness requirements, maintaining positive control of all assigned Soldiers and equipment, and routine certification in your assigned tasks by your higher headquarters. So, how do we do that well, where we can hold each other accountable while inspiring them to want to inherently be and do better? I believe we can all recall times where someone, such as a boss, unnecessarily tore us down for not maintaining a certain standard; maybe they even targeted us personally, rather than just our undesired behavior. I challenge the assumption held by many that holding others accountable to the standards requires strict and harsh reactions. How can we enact mutual accountability while continuing to build a stronger, more effective, and cohesive team? In his book (which I highly recommend), The Culture Code, Dan Coyle asserts that, “one misconception about highly successful [team] cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. This task involves many moments of high-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling, when they confront the gap between where the group is, and where it ought to be.”

Recently, during our graduate study of organizational psychology, a number of my colleagues and I attempted to tackle this issue of how to hold one another accountable and enforce standards in an effective manner, where we help inspire commitment to the standards, and prevent excuses and emotional reactions from others. Though it is much too complicated of a topic to simply boil down to a short list of individual behaviors that equate to automatic success, we did attempt to identify key attitudes, behaviors, and considerations to best enact this challenging side of leadership responsibility. Below are 12 leader principles to help effective standards enforcement.

  1. Be knowledgeable of regulations and policies; gather the facts and build context. This allows you to handle situations when you confront others with confidence and clarity, rather than saying, “I think it’s supposed to be…”
  2. Set the example in your words and behavior. Period. Early and always.
  3. Eradicate the fear of being not liked or isolated by some people; commit to enacting leadership, not “likership.” You won’t always be popular for upholding standards, but your personal example and the relationships you build will create trust within your organization.
  4. Build valence (or intrinsic attractiveness) for the standards in others; explain the “why” and lead them to understand the bigger picture.
  5. Enact behaviors founded in strong emotional intelligence.
  6. Approach corrective situations with a curious attitude; do not act unnecessarily aggressive. Also, use an “escalation of force” in your approach based on the severity of the issue and the situational context.
  7. Focus on behaviors and facts; do not make it personal. Most people will be receptive to criticism of observed behaviors, but less responsive if you’re telling them that they’re failing as a leader.
  8. Manage expectations of the outcomes and conversations. Personal attitudes and collective cultural norms are not altered in a single conversation.
  9. Know and leverage what motivates your organization and people.
  10. Offer the appropriate balance of challenge (accountability, punishment, correction) and support (care, concern, help) based on your people, the issue(s), and other influential context. Also, focus on the issue at hand and do not unnecessarily generalize this to someone’s overall performance or potential.
  11. Consider a balance of benevolence versus dominance.
  12. Understand the influence of your non-verbal communication methods in addition to your verbal ones. Your body language and facial expressions can influence just as much as your words and tone.

I offer this list not as a step-by-step solution that will immediately resolve people not adhering to standards; I certainly am a student within this topic and do not have many of the answers. I write this more as a conversation starter. This complex issue requires transparency and honesty among organizational members. Why do we accept certain sub-standard performance or behavior? If we have a sizable counter-culture that fights the established expectations of our organization, why does it exist? What do we need to change to alleviate a strong anti-standards culture? Leaders need to engage in these challenging conversations to even begin to consider initiating a cultural shift in attitude and commitment to expectations and established standards.

I encourage readers to join the conversation on how we can best tackle organizational accountability and standards enforcement. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, on Facebook, the 3×5 Leadership Facebook Group, and Twitter.

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  1. I now work in the commercial nuclear industry where we only recently identified that leadership skill was a gap in our suite. We now have a theorem of leadership principles entitled Essential Outcomes. Discipline is rigor for us in the commercial industry. It is adherence to the standards and management model we’ve created. Lethality oddly is an enabler in combat, and not an end state. Lethality allows us to create détente with potential adversaries, and when needed in dynamic or kinetic events provides us that OODA loop ‘act’ component that facilitates action without conscious thought. In the nuclear industry, lethality has no direct corollary in our Essential Outcomes. I opine that the notion of being extraordinarily proficient at one’s fundamental task is the point here. Proficiency is the ability to execute a skill at extraordinarily high levels (being lethal) in varying environments with internal and external drivers influencing individuals and teams. I like the idea of applying the lethal mindset to leadership in a non-combat motif.


  2. I like the ideas presented in this article. However, I find the first bullet-point a concern. While I agree that we all should “Be knowledgeable of regulations and policies; gather the facts and build context. This allows you to handle situations when you confront others with confidence and clarity.” The statement maintains a pragmatic problem: most large institutions have too many general regulations too keep track of and enforce, and which often conflict with the efficiency and effectiveness of the institution. Petty policies lacking in empirical value are often held over from one generation of leaders to the next solely out of tradition rather than positive institutional value based in fact. In this Harvard Business Review article by Ranjay Gulati (, the author identifies the Army’s Gordian Knot through the business world: “Executives have trouble resolving the tension between employee empowerment and operational discipline.” When leaders and subordinates are overwhelmed with pedantic rules and rules lacking the intended impact on moral or cohesion the realistic answer is to either disregarded or derided the anachronistic relics. Thus, reliance on stifling and irrelevant traditions are likely to create more leadership problems when seeking to increase discipline through accountability and standard enforcement is likely to have an effect opposite to the intent.

    1. Nick, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree it is hard to get after #1 with such an oversaturation of rules and regulations. However, I don’t think the idea is to counter that by ignoring that aspect of leader accountability. I work to focus on the rules that matter to my organization to make us more effective, lethal, and professional. And I routinely spend a little time re-engaging regulations to remain current and educated. It’s a challenge, I agree, but one that we need to keep tackling.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and resources.

    2. I think the answer here is the leader has to choose what standards are most important and prioritize enforcement of those standards in particular. There is this often quoted belief in the service that if you are disciplined in the small things you will also be disciplined in the large things. I don’t believe that is necessarily true. Studies indicate that self-control is a limited resource (Muraven et al, 1998), so it seems logical to prioritize that resource on the most important things first.

      1. TL, I do agree there has to be emphasis and clarity on what is important and why. Everything can’t be. I appreciate your perspective! –Josh

  3. If as a boss you never check to see that tasks are being accomplished to standard, what you are doing is communicating. You are sending the message that that particular task is not actually important. And it’s non-verbal communication, which is always stronger than verbal.

    For example, when I was a commander I made a point to hit the motor pool at some (random) time on PMCS day. I’d select a few (random) vehicles to spot check…pull a dipstick, etc. It’s not that the subordinate leaders need me to check that stuff, indeed the commander should not have to personally check PMCS to make sure it’s done right. But it sends the message that the boss isn’t just flapping his gums about this stuff…he really thinks its important. Oh, and it’s a good example for subordinate leaders as well.

    And checking doesn’t need to have a negative connotation. It’s an opportunity to catch someone doing it right, which is way more powerful than catching someone screwing up.

  4. In terms of accountability, I think holding people financially responsible for equipment in their possession would work wonders. For some reason, we’ve strayed from that and accountability is a big issue now.

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