Collaborative Leadership Blog

The Blue Angels’ Principle of Accountability

“It’s the other guy’s fault.” How often do we hear people shift responsibility for something they have done to someone else? This is called transference. We have seen transference in spades in the BP oil spill, with each of the companies involved blaming the other for this ecological and human disaster.

Transference seems to be an epidemic these days. People are unwilling to be held accountable for things they do, so they shift the responsibility to others. Indeed, transference appears to be a central element of corporate culture. It is otherwise known as the blame game, finger-pointing, not getting caught, spin, or just plain old politics. It goes hand-in-glove with another way of working—“ask for forgiveness, not for permission”. There is little if any upside to this behavior. It undermines trust and integrity, as well as speed, quality, organizational effectiveness and profitability. The amount of time people spend in covering up their mistakes, in denial or avoidance, and gathering the votes of others so the ax falls somewhere else, could be time spent on  improving quality, strengthening customer service, or increasing sales. Transference is a waste of precious work time in a world that demands speed.

Alternatively, the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angel high precision jet flying team have shown us another way to address responsibility and accountability. The Blue Angels Principle is about self-accountability.  Here are six fighter pilots flying in a V formation at 2000 mph with a 36” wing separation, conducting thousands of maneuvers during a 45 minute aerial acrobatic show. They have to trust each other at their core. Their lives depend on it.

So they rigorously practice the principle of self-accountability, what I am calling the Blue Angels Principle. When the pilots do their after-show or after-practice debriefs on the mission, if one pilot made a mistake on maneuver 537, they are expected to own up to it publically, acknowledge their responsibility, and to commit to their teammates that it will never happen again. Everyone else knows this pilot screwed up and could have done the blame game, but that is not how the Blue Angels operate.

Self-accountability, though, is more than just fessing up to a mistake. It is a way of living and working—it is a cornerstone of their culture. Its benefits are many:

  • Builds trust and integrity because now I can count on you to tell me the truth
  • Builds a learning culture
  • Increases speed and adaptability because now there is no need for politics, spin, or blame
  • Improves quality because now they can work on other aspects of their performance.

Self-accountability is a central tenet of a collaborative leadership culture. It is an agreement that leadership makes with each other about how they will work together.  Shifting to this way of working requires visionary leadership, a conscious choice, resolve, and persistence. It requires leadership who understand that in a fast-paced global and digital market, where their corporate lives depend on trust and speed, they need to adopt the Blue Angels Principle of self-accountability.