Professional Accountability: What it Means and Why it Matters

By October 31, 2017Leadership, Ownership

One scorching August afternoon, only a month into my new job as a Marine Infantry Platoon Commander, I found myself standing at attention in front of the Battalion Commander’s desk, covered in sweat and ash. “Mossburg, old man, tell me what’s going on…” The Colonel had a big, booming voice – one that echoed out from his office and filled the Battalion Headquarters. At this volume, most of Camp Pendleton would immediately know two things: first, there was a problem; second, someone named Mossburg owned that problem.

I quickly launched into the events that had me standing at attention before the man in charge. Earlier that morning, my Company Commander had assigned a small group from the Weapons Platoon to my platoon. Unbeknownst to me, one of my newly acquired Marines brought with him a few “flash-bangs” – thinking it was just a loud firecracker. The young Marine in question thought that setting one off would be a great way to grab everyone’s attention for a quick, impromptu class in the field. He had no idea how successful he would be.

Under the blazing California sun, his seemingly good intentions quickly caught the surrounding brush on fire. The ensuing twenty-acre fire would go on to claim a few of our packs, three or four flak jackets, and a half dozen helmets or so. An entire Company of Marines would be forced to utilize entrenching tools to try and limit the damage. Even with these efforts, the Camp Pendleton Fire Department would have to scramble a handful of engines to extinguish the brushfire. All of which landed me in a very unwanted spotlight. For while I wasn’t the one who caused the blaze, I would be the one accountable for it. At every level of military leadership, there is an oft-repeated mantra around accountability: as a leader, you are responsible for everything your unit does or does not do. The Colonel would go on to emphasize that point in no uncertain terms, and at a volume that would ensure the rest of the Battalion would heed that lesson as well.

Almost two decades later, I’d find myself living that scenario all over again during a recent client engagement. While working on an application deployment, some minor network changes had inadvertently taken down internet access for a very large, customer-facing part of the business. Although the issue did not stem from our team, walking away from the ensuing bonfire (and a very irate client) was not an option. Instead, we dug in to help find a solution.

While our team didn’t have an immediate answer, we were able to find the people who could provide one. Frustration gradually gave way to relief. Though we lost time, we gained allies because we took ownership and helped solve a problem that wasn’t of our own making. As consultants, we often find ourselves in challenging situations. What I learned the hard way so many years ago about being professionally accountable directly applies to my everyday life as a consultant. If you recognize that a problem exists, you should be diligent in helping to find a solution.

Being professionally accountable doesn’t mean you created the problem; it means you’re going to do everything you can to solve it. Without oversight and accountability, issues – like wildfires – don’t get resolved and can soon go out of control. Almost two decades later, it’s much easier to laugh when my friends from the Marines talk about the time I “almost burned down Camp Pendleton”. Of course, those two decades have also given me a much better perspective on accountability and a greater appreciation for the lessons I learned as a Marine.

James Mossburg

About James Mossburg