Accountability, Leadership, and the Logic of Either/Or

Exploring how we think about and practice accountability–from pop culture to organizational life

Jason Craige Harris
Counter Arts

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Two apparently contradictory things can be true at the same time. One could be both right and wrong. One could have had good intent yet taken actions that resulted in a negative impact. One could have harmed someone and been harmed by them. One could therefore be both rightfully aggrieved and appropriately responsible.

Yet prevailing views on leadership often reduce this complex reality to a more easily digestible outlook. Imagine that a leader has fallen into a terrible conflict with their team. The story that would get told about the situation would likely conform to predictable narrative patterns. The leader is either completely innocent of any wrongdoing — their innocence being the source of their moral authority — or at fault in perpetuity — their moral influence crumbling alongside their credibility.

As often as the general public falls into this binary trap when talking about leadership and accountability, leaders, candidates for both deification and demonization, also frequently succumb to this dominant narrative’s ruthless seduction.

This either/or logic, grounded in a politics of disposability, heightens the stakes. You are either innocent and therefore deserve to be protected against reputational blight, or you are irreparably guilty and therefore deserve to be discarded. This logic prevents leaders from stepping into accountability.

As Donna Hicks frames it, accountability can require an acknowledgement of impact, an admission of wrongdoing, an expression of remorse, an apology, and/or a commitment to change the behavior. Accountability, essentially an admission of imperfection and therefore of humanity, can feel too risky in a political climate where we can easily be reduced to the harm others perceive us to have done. This dynamic is an unintended consequence of what some call “cancel culture.”

When accountability means only punitivity, the pursuit of it gets disincentivized. Accountability, then, becomes the plague that we must avoid at all costs. We may avoid it more than we avoid harm itself.

Last summer several dancers accused the hip hop artist Lizzo of creating a working environment hostile to their sense of psychological safety. The dancers alleged that they were weight-shamed and subjected to sexual harassment. A few months later, Lizzo’s former fashion designer Asha Daniels claimed that she experienced and witnessed leaders creating a “unsafe, sexually charged workplace culture.”

What has happened since then is unfortunately predictable. Lizzo and her leadership team could have turned their attention inward to address what appear to be persistent cultural challenges in her organization. Instead Lizzo lawyered up and recently filed a motion to suppress Daniels’ harassment lawsuit against her, a motion that has now been denied. According to the Guardian, Lizzo’s lawyers have called the lawsuit “a bogus, absurd publicity stunt” and deemed Daniels nothing more than a “disgruntled” former employee who was obviously an under-performer.

The logic of either/or has prevailed again as it so often does. Lizzo has shown no public signs of entertaining the possibility that she may be responsible for harm that she enacted or that happened on her watch. It is reasonable to suspect that entertaining this possibility may appear to Lizzo to be too destabilizing and too risky. The only viable alternative in this discursive echo chamber is to dismiss the claims of harassment as baseless — and therefore delusional at best and diabolical at worst. The basic narrative plot involving a victim and victimizer remains the same, but the characters have switched roles — Lizzo, the new victim, and Daniels and her allies, the victimizers.

Yet Lizzo is not just any leader. She is a Black woman leader who regularly encounters challenges a world at war with those intersecting identities so often imposes. It would be reductive, then, not to acknowledge the peculiar plight of Black women leaders and how the intersectionality of race and gender undoubtedly shapes their experience. Black women have always been more highly scrutinized than others, held to impossible standards, and vilified when they, like any other human, have fallen short.

A suffocating and inhumane perfection can feel like the only option to those who cannot afford not to be perceived as innocent. Clearly the risks are acute for Black women leaders who err, intentionally or otherwise, and who choose to own that they have done so rather than defend themselves to the end like so many other leaders do. These especially high stakes for Black women leaders appear in stark relief against the backdrop of an environment that has proven to be unforgiving to leaders and, as racist misogyny ensures, doubly so to Black women leaders.

Racist misogyny produces a warehouse of stories that endeavor to limit being itself. Black women have been forced to exist either as the perfectly saintly and ever-respectable Rosa Parks, in the public’s memory of her, or the perfectly sinful and ever-rebellious Shug Avery, as some characters view her in Walker’s The Color Purple. The dominant archetypes of Black womanhood are both restricted and restrictive.

The logic of either/or, then, has been especially harmful to Black women leaders. If Lizzo is not perfectly innocent, she is clearly guilty — her humanity erased by the binary. And her alleged guilt makes her disposable. Disrupting this logic can liberate Black women and, in so doing, free us all — to claim our full humanity and, in the process, to own the harm we’ve done and take steps to fix things. In this new, more liberative consciousness, owning the harm we have done would confirm our dignity rather than diminish it.

If we were to disrupt the view-obstructing logic of absolute innocence or absolute guilt, is it possible that a more complex picture of Lizzo would come into focus? Blame and responsibility are different things. What if Lizzo isn’t exactly to blame for all that is alleged to have happened, as some have suggested she is, but what if she is ultimately responsible? What if this is a case of leadership malpractice rather than leadership malevolence? Sometimes skills gaps masquerade as moral gaps.

Leaders typically ascend to their roles not because they are excellent at managing teams and enabling their colleagues to flourish. Rather, they often ascend because they are experts in particular fields or disciplines. Being an amazing artist is not the same thing as being an amazing leader of an artistic endeavor.

It is entirely possible that Lizzo and the leaders she has employed know very little about leadership best practices. And if that is the case, it would make sense that their leadership could become a model of what not to do rather than a paragon worthy of emulation. In this regard, Lizzo and her leaders’ failures, though harmful and preventable, wouldn’t be all that remarkable.

Imagine it. What if Lizzo and her leaders did not invest in training on how to interrupt bias and harassment and assert and protect boundaries? What if there was no trusted pathway for team members to report incidents of harm thereby forcing them to seek external remedy as a last resort? What if Lizzo’s workplace lacked norms and a relevant code of conduct with training for all staff on their role in creating and maintaining a culture and climate of dignity for all? What if Lizzo’s workplace was therefore like so many others? What if? What if Lizzo could take responsibility while also honoring her own humanity?

While I may not have directly enacted the harm you endured, I recognize that I am responsible for the culture and climate that compromised your experience of safety and security. I take responsibility for what has happened. I am truly sorry. Things should have been different — better, for you and others. I want to collaborate with you, if you are willing, to repair the harm and to prevent harm from happening again. What can I do to make things right?

Such a statement could mark the beginning of a truly transformative dialogue for Lizzo, the aggrieved parties, and adjacent staff, as well as adoring fans and skeptics alike.

Yet an overly litigious culture often forecloses a chance for true accountability. Rather than owning whatever part we played in a situation of harm, we may desperately fend off critics to recuperate our innocence. By default, then, the logic of either/or also precludes the possibility of leaders taming their shadows.

It may feel best just to pretend that the shadows don’t exist at all — self-justification appearing to be easier than acknowledgement and confession. Not only does this either/or narrative of innocence require that we ignore our shadows, it gives them permission to lurk — unchained, unleashed, unbound — wreaking havoc on our relationships and foregoing the possibility of repair.

Leaders can feel forced to cling to their innocence as if their survival depends on it. The stakes seem too high to do otherwise. We install leaders on pedestals and when they appear to fail, we either condemn or defend them, both responses missing the point. It is no wonder that the logic of either/or can make the cost of being seen as responsible for harm unaffordable and therefore unfathomable. Who would voluntarily choose to accept a guilty status in an environment that can be so unforgiving?

It is in this wider context of how we narrate what it means to be a leader, that individual leaders come to understand and regard themselves. Lizzo’s self-defensive posture does not exist in a vacuum. It is true that leaders like Lizzo could push back and tell better, fuller stories that defy society’s reductionist narratives — that assert both their fallibility and their commitment to becoming better leaders. However, the stories leaders tell about themselves frequently leave little room for their full, complex humanity. Rarely have I encountered a leader who was not both saint and sinner. Rarer still are leaders who would own that dual reality and the consequences to which it gives rise.

We need leaders who have the inner resources and community support to take responsibility for harm they have done — easier said than done. If leaders are willing to do the hard inner work of grappling honestly with their shadows, do we have what it takes to hold their humanity in the process? These two variables — the inner resources of leaders and community support— are key ingredients for accountable leadership.

As a conflict mediator and leadership coach, I often encounter leaders at their most vulnerable and therefore in especially reactive states. “After reflecting over the weekend and talking with my therapist,” a leader I had been attempting to coach through a particularly thorny conflict once said to me, “I have concluded that I did nothing wrong in this situation. I don’t think there is anything I could have done differently.”

Yet most conflicts are not one-sided. Having been intimately acquainted with the details of the conflict that had embroiled the leader and their employee I knew that the reality was more complex than this leader’s newfound narrative of innocence would allow. Masking their shame-induced self-protective assertion as confident rationality, this leader dismissed their role in sustaining a protracted conflict with their employee.

To be clear, in my view, while the leader was partly responsible for the breakdown with their employee, the employee bore responsibility as well. Shared responsibility for the breakdown in their relationship would be essential to repairing it. Yet the leader could not hold the complexity of this interpretive frame and reverted to the simpler binary opposition of “I am innocent, and they are guilty.”

Coming to turns with the reality that the leader was partly responsible for what happened seemed too great a burden to bear. In truth, the leader, though a wonderful human, had, at various junctures, behaved poorly. No doubt lodged in the throes of an unacknowledged stress response, this leader did not show up as their best self. They resorted to sarcasm, condescension, isolating their employee, and dismissing critical feedback, all while spinning tales of their innocence and impotence. This behavior intensified the conflict, diminished trust, dissipated psychological safety, and widened the chasm between this leader and their employee.

In my view, this behavior was not typical of this leader, so what happened? The leader had a conflict with an employee whose behavior activated the leader’s stress response. Likely unaware of what was happening within them, the leader descended into their lower mind, which is responsible for our flight-fight-freeze-fawn responses, and slipped into maladaptive coping mechanisms. They did not effectively engage in self-soothing or de-stressing techniques and instead resorted to coping. Yet coping is not solving.

The dynamics devolved further, centripetally drawing in other staff, thereby forcing the leader, finally, to pause and reflect. Could there be another way to handle this situation? The leader could have seized this reflective moment as an opportunity to correct course. Unfortunately, every step forward contains the possibility of its own undoing. Regression haunts every forward advance. The leader ultimately decided to trade critical reflection for self-assurance and doubled down on their innocence.

This leader’s inflexible sense of self, abetted by the logic of either/or, would not stretch any further. They unwittingly swapped a sense of their own dignity for the identity of a perpetual victim. In this narrative, a victim by definition cannot victimize others.

One way of handling our own shame is to externalize it, forcefully thrusting it back on whomever catalyzed it in the first place — and that is exactly what this leader did. Not only did this leader likely experience shame from without (how their employee treated them), they also may have experienced it from within (realizing their gap between values and actions). When faced with the shame of knowing that we may have harmed others — confronted with the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us — we may dismiss this contradiction in exchange for the delusion of its absence.

Contrary to what this leader seems to think, a false sense of innocence is not the antidote to shame — empathy is. Leaders can learn to identify the voice of shame with all of its judgment and to speak back to it. Why? Because shame rarely leads to accountability.

Unmasking shame and thereby rendering it powerless to dictate a leader’s actions could sound like a leader confessing firstly to themselves a more complex truth that manages to assert their dignity in the process:

I know that I was not my best self in this situation. Realizing and naming that hurts. I did not treat that person with the level of dignity they deserve. I want to own that. And I can do better. What I did or said to contribute to this situation does not have to define me. Like others, I have made mistakes, and I, too, can learn from my mistakes, heal the rift that I have caused or intensified, and make better choices in the future.

A statement like that can enable a leader to direct empathy toward themselves. And empathy can quiet the voice of shame. We are not alone in the mistakes we have made or in the harms we have caused. We existed before the harm, and we can exist after it — and can help heal it if we take responsibility for our impact. As Bryan Stevenson says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

We can learn to trade the isolation that shame imposes for the sense of connection that empathy unlocks. In so doing, empathy can help remove barriers to stepping into accountability. Suddenly accountability is no longer about tethering someone to the harm they have done; it is about liberating them to become a healer of that harm. Empathy can empower us to own our part in the breakdowns that happen.

After embracing self-empathy, leaders can come to a more nuanced conclusion about their role in a conflict. They can then communicate that realization to the other party:

I want to own the ways I’ve contributed to the chasm between us. I share in the responsibility for what happened. I feel terribly about that and want to make it right. I want to talk through what I could have done differently. In the spirit of vulnerability, I also want to acknowledge that I cannot fix this relationship alone. There are pieces of what happened that are not mine to own. I am hopeful that we can talk about that too. I want us to get to a better place.

A leader should be the first mover in a situation of this kind. They can model vulnerability and, in so doing, assert that responsibility is a higher virtue than innocence. Leaders have an outsized influence on the culture of their teams. What they model becomes the model. Leaders have to model accountability in order, reasonably speaking, to expect it from others.

It takes work to train the mind away from knee-jerk rejections of anything that does not readily reduce down to an either/or frame. Neat binaries can feel comforting especially in times of confusion, paradox, and existential dread. Insisting on the logic of either/or may be an unconscious attempt to establish stability in the face of chaos.

Communication breakdowns, relational fissures, and conflict-induced harms can be profoundly disorienting. Who we are is partly defined by those to whom we see ourselves being connected. When relationships go awry — when we suffer harm because of them or when we cause harm to them — we may find ourselves calling into question who we are without them, because of them, or despite them.

An individual self newly destabilized by such a disorienting experience can only exist in this state for so long without seeking stability. The question is generally not if, but when and how will stability be sought. Usually we take the lower road as opposed to the lesser-traveled higher pathway. Rather than expanding our view and holding complexity, we often banish nuance in exchange for noise. This perspective associates stability with simplistic explanations — the simpler, the stabler — rather than with scaffolded understandings.

Yet the benefits of a more expansive consciousness outweigh the losses associated with a simplistic mentality that should be laid to rest. A comforting delusion is not enduringly satisfying nor is it effective in helping us face the world as it is — rather than as we may wish it to be. A both/and approach better serves us in understanding the complexity and nuance of life and can empower us to navigate conflicts and relationships with skill and wisdom.

Accountability is often framed as a zero-sum reality. It is either your fault or mine. This popular understanding of accountability automatically assigns responsibility for harm to the province of one party. If we hope to resolve conflicts and heal harms, we must let go of the logic of either/or and instead embrace the logic of both/and.

The word “and” unlocks a world of possibility for leaders and for all of us. Rather than claiming good intent in a way that denies my impact or asserting my impact in a way that defames my goodwill, I can acknowledge my good intent and take responsibility when my impact pulls apart from it. Rather than alleging no responsibility thereby asserting a victim identity or claiming all responsibility thereby asserting a martyr identity, I can own the role that I have played in perpetuating a conflict and make room for you to own the role that you’ve played.

While zebras cannot change their stripes, leaders can change their mindsets and practices. Change requires deep reflection as well as trial and error. It is a rigorous process of unlearning and relearning. All change is learning and all learning is change. Some leaders are not ready to do this kind of work and therefore will miss the benefits it conjures.

The leader featured in this essay has not engaged with me further on their conflict. From my understanding, they have proved unable or unwilling to do the deeper work of reconciling with their shadows, of acknowledging that they played a role in the breakdown that has happened. They refuse to let go of their innocence, which is partly why they’ve been so embattled trying to keep it. Predictably so, the conflict has persisted.

Yet I wonder whether the leader has doubled down because they do not think they have enough community support to own the harm they have caused. Afraid to be discarded, the leader then discards and dismisses. And the cycle continues. Still, the leader could create that community of support for themselves — its members need not be their employees. And maybe that is one of the first steps for a leader who wants to be accountable — identify a person who can hold your dignity as you work to repair the dignity of those you’ve harmed.

Jason Craige Harris is a writer, educator, facilitator, and strategist specializing in leadership, crisis, conflict, and repair. He is a senior partner at the global consulting firm Perception Strategies. Jason studied religion, ethics, and culture at Yale Divinity School. Jason lives in Brooklyn, New York. Read more about Jason at www.jchheals.com.

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Jason Craige Harris
Counter Arts

Educator | Facilitator | Consultant | Coach | Advisor | Trainer | Speaker | Writer | Spiritual Practitioner