As Above, So Below

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Julie Miller and Brian Bedford

Almost every leader has been there. One minute you’re living the company values, and the next you’re making an exception—for yourself. Perhaps you have an official policy of being super-responsive, but when an especially problematic client calls, you avoid him for a day or two. Or, despite a stated commitment to respectful communication, you lose it and shout at Margaret in sales when she falls short of her quarterly goal once again. Or, you have a no-excuses policy on deadlines, but when you personally miss one, you just finesse the client into giving an extension.

Company leaders should be aware of what we call the “as above, so below” phenomenon: Employees mirror the behaviors of the successful leaders they see above them. The rationale is simple. Employees feel, “If they get ahead by behaving that way, then that’s what I’ll do.” That’s great when leaders act with accountability, but it becomes a big problem when leaders don’t make accountability a priority.

To be successful, a company’s leaders must apply the relentless focus and commitment necessary to build the required culture and must serve as role models for required behaviors. In the end, the establishment of a culture is all about how leaders behave and what behaviors they reward and discourage.

Here are four critical actions for leaders who want to create a winning culture:
1. Hold yourself accountable. A rule applies to everyone, or it applies to no one. As a leader, you must remain keenly aware that everyone is watching you and that everything starts at the top. You must hold yourself accountable to at least the same level of expectation you have for your employees.

For example, Sir Alex Ferguson, the long-time coach of Manchester United soccer club, held everyone, including himself, accountable to the credo, “The club is more important than any individual.” No matter how skilled or important they were, if a player didn’t follow that rule, they were let go. Examples of his “no one is bigger than the club” ethic involved some of the biggest names in the club’s history, including David Beckham, whose larger-than-life persona became a distraction.

Sir Alex was quick to hold himself accountable to the same high standards. When United lost the Premier League title by the narrowest of margins at the end of the 2012 season, he blamed himself, not the players. And, when the team exited from the Champions League (the competition he held in the highest regard) at an early stage in the same season, he blamed his own team selections and tactics.

2. Spell out expectations to the letter. Without clear expectations, there’s no way to hold someone accountable. Make sure each employee has a clear understanding of what is expected of him or her. That may mean going into detail that on the surface feels like overkill—but isn’t. Tell employees, “It’s vital that I can always rely on you to do what you say you’ll do. If you can’t because circumstances have changed, let me know ASAP with a fix-it plan.” This sets a very clear expectation.

3. Know when to nourish your employees. Of his time at General Electric, Jack Welch once said, “My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds, too.”

It’s clear that Welch knew the importance of holding people accountable. He had a standard for his employees, and anyone who didn’t meet that standard would suffer the consequences. When mistakes are made, you can and should hold your people accountable. If you don’t, they can’t improve and your company can’t improve.

Of course, holding people accountable isn’t easy. You have to tell your employees the truth. You can’t do this without talking to people about what they are doing well and where they need to improve. This is where the accountability process breaks down most often. To cultivate a culture of accountability, you have to know when and how to provide nourishment so that your people can improve, just as Welch did at GE.

4. Hone the art of instant feedback. Leaders should share impressions as soon as they see the behavior they would like to encourage or discourage. For feedback to be productive, it must be shared regularly and without delay. If this practice becomes part of the culture, people will come to expect it and not feel that it’s anything unusual. Make sure feedback is specific, focusing on the particular issue or behavior in question. Consider using the S.I.S. Feedback Model, a straightforward and objective process in which you first describe the situation, then explain what impact it had, and then suggest ways to stop (or continue) the behavior. This model teaches people to focus on the facts—what the person said or did—and the positive or negative consequence of those actions without resorting to name-calling or other inflammatory language, which will only add fuel to the fire.

To establish a culture of accountability, there can be no double standard. If leaders and employees don’t follow the same set of rules, the whole system will break down. The good news is that when leaders commit to modeling the right behaviors, their employees will surely follow.
Learn more about inspiring your people to succeed at these AMA seminars:
Achieving Leadership Success Through People

The Voice of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire, Influence and Achieve Results

About the Author(s)

Julie Miller and Brian Bedford Drawing on their respective years of experience in senior global leadership at Motorola, Julie Miller and Brian Bedford joined forces to establish MillerBedford Executive Solutions ( in 2001. They are coauthors of Culture Without Accountability—WTF: What’s the Fix? (Criffel Publishing 2013).