Collaborative Leadership Blog

Honor & Accountability

I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating. Sophocles

At the end of the day, there is always an accounting for what we have done, for good or ill. Anonymous

If we have learned anything in the past year from our national politics or the world of business, it is the critical importance of honor and accountability for what we do. When laws are violated, ethics are ignored, norms are busted, and the canons of common decency are thrown out, there is an accounting—sooner or later. With the passing of a former President, there is an accounting by the public. For Facebook, the European Union has held them accountable for their data breaches. In the Russia probe, the courts are sentencing convicted felons. At Google, the CEO was held accountable for his failure to adequately address sexual harassment by thousands of employees walking out around the world. When drug prices on life-saving drugs get raised to astronomical levels, there is regulatory action to be taken. There is always an accounting. It’s a matter of honor.

In the Blue Angels, the US Navy’s precision flight team, they have a standard called self-accountability. A team of 6 F18 Hornets, fly at 700 mph, with an 18 inch wing separation in one of their most difficult maneuvers during their 45 minute flight. If one of team member makes even the slightest mistake, they could all die. So they must own up to it at debriefing, and commit to it never happening again. If it does, they’re off the team. It is a matter of honor, integrity, and personal responsibility for these airmen to adhere to this code.

Imagine if the Blue Angels principles of self-accountability and honor were applied to the conduct of today’s business leaders, politicians, or government officials. Imagine if we had a code of ethics where their honor was so important to professionals, that they would take full responsibility for any breaches of integrity. What might it take to restore honor and accountability to our workplaces?

  • Individual Honor: We can each reflect on what honor means to us in our own lives and work; getting clear about it and owning it is the first step
  • Commit to a Code of Ethics: Having a personal code of ethics, as well as a company code, that we commit to provides the platform for honorable behavior
  • Self-Accountability: A policy that rewards individuals owning up to their own mistakes while still holding them accountable is a delicate balancing act, but provides for learning and growth
  • Zero Tolerance: At the company level, instituting a policy of zero tolerance for breaches makes it clear there is certainty if people step over the line
  • Enforcement: There must be follow through on severe breaches to ensure there is respect for the code

Without honor, there is no accountability. Without accountability, there is no integrity. Without integrity there is no trust. Without trust, we have nothing.

Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; he is an ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and best-selling author of Building Trust at the Speed of Change. You can contact him at or (919)265-9616