During my days as VP of Marketing and Operations at Papa John’s, I had picked up a simple project; how to add the tomato story on our sauce cans that were displayed in restaurants. We got the text and the graphics done and thought the rest will happen in a few days. Little did I know, that legal had to take it through a PDP (Principal Display Panel) guideline compliance, a decently complicated process, that varied by state.

In a Board meeting, our founder John asked me in front of everyone, where we were on the project. I gave a vague answer that we were nearly there. He paused and went to the whiteboard and started writing:

  • Did you set clear expectations?
  • Did you meet those expectations?
  • When you failed to meet those expectations, did you reset the expectations?

As he was writing the questions, I had an uneasy feeling of embarrassment in front of the group. I was getting worried that this would be a legendary story of me getting fired that would be a learning experience for the rest. Then John looked at me and said, “You failed completely in being accountable. But do you know what your biggest failure is? When you set expectations, you had no clue what you were saying yes to; and after that blunder there is no coming back.”

I started reflecting on what John had said. He was right. I had assumed that this would be an easy project and had no clue of the legal complexities, which were not in my control. That is where I really went wrong.

Then, John walked up to me and said, “As a leader you failed me. But, do you know why you are still here?” “Not really Sir!” came out of my mouth automatically.

John continued, “You are here because you are the only one that took total responsibility. That is the highest quality of a leader. There are others in the team present here, who have let you down. But you did not point fingers. You are taking total responsibility which allows us all to immediately move forward, instead of staying in the past and dissecting who did what wrong.”

That day when I left the meeting, I heaved a sigh of relief as I had a close call of a CLM (Career Limiting Move). I wrote down the five rules of accountability and felt fortunate that John taught me that and gave me an opportunity to live those in the future. I still wonder from time to time if he had to do it in a public setting, but I guess if your name is on the brand, you can choose how to deliver a message.

Here are the 5 rules of accountability:

  1. Know what you are saying YES to, before setting expectations.
  2. Set clear expectations.
  3. Meet those expectations.
  4. If you fail to meet those expectations, reset expectations.
  5. Finally, if you fail, simply take total responsibility.

Most of us are clear on #2 and #3, some of us do #4 right too. Over the years, I have seen that #1 and #5 define the true character of a leader. Leaders who live accountability at the highest level, operate with the highest level of self-trust and earn everyone’s trust too.

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