Accountability and inclusion 


I have noticed with concern over the past few years in the NSW public sector the requirements for new or upgraded policies when the real problem is how existing policies are implemented, or not. This is like the enduring dark joke about governments setting up committees to avoid doing things. 

There is a fundamental fallacy at work – that making a policy clearer will contribute to its implementation and adherence to it. It won’t. If conduct at work causes injury it is concern for the injured person that triggers a response, not the fact that there is a policy prohibiting the conduct. When that concern is seemingly absent no amount of policy writing will bring it back. But its not absent, just dormant.

Historically our organisational cultures have not been built on concern for the welfare of individual staff members – unless they are members of a powerful in-group. Concern for the welfare of individuals as an element of organisational culture has been evolving slowly, but steadily, over the past 5 or 6 decades. 

Holding a team leader, manager or executive responsible for conduct that causes injury – by exclusion, or discrimination or bullying – isn’t yet an integral part of organisational culture. It is in an aspirational stage.

I have recently been reading a couple of books on leadership by 2 US Navy Seals – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Kate Nash of PurpleSpace really triggered my curiosity when she noted that Jocko was one of her favourite authors. Now I know why. The 2 books I have read are Extreme Ownership and The Dichotomy of Leadership.

Towards personal ownership

Efforts to refine policies are misguided, though well-intentioned, when ‘the problem’ about why policies are not followed is believed to be that the policy isn’t clear enough. 

It’s an effort to move forward, but it becomes an instance of wheel spinning because there is no traction for the change effort. This is an instance of magical thinking which asserts people will do the right thing when information is presented in the right way. It’s the ‘cognitive silver bullet’ fallacy. We are not moved by information. We are moved by concern, love, fear, empathy and so on. 

In the NSW public sector staff sign a Code of Conduct, which is a kind of contract about how to behave as an employee. What is absent is guidance on how to enforce it. There isn’t, to my knowledge, a policy on how the Code of Conduct is enforced. Codes of Conduct are clear on what is expected of a staff member in their interaction with other staff members and community members. There aren’t loopholes that accidentally excuse abusive or exclusionary conduct. But the Code of Conduct is not treated as a contract and is almost never invoked when dealing with misconduct.

I mention the Code of Conduct because it is an example of a simple and clear contract governing behaviour which, despite its intent and potential, is rendered impotent because there is no cultural character or will to enforce it. Yet despite this, demands for revised policies related to misconduct covered in the Code of Conduct continue. No better instance of ‘the problem’ being misdiagnosed could be found.

When we understand that books like Extreme Ownership represent an evolution in military leadership, we start to understand that what we are seeing is a corresponding echo in other organisations. How we lead has been evolving for decades. I had touched on this in earlier posts, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Evolving higher levels of accountability isn’t a case of addressing a deficit – as I used to think – but a case of activating a positive potential.  And because this is novel the means of doing so isn’t an established aspect of organizational culture – yet. It’s an emergent potential. Tweaking policies is what you do when you haven’t thought the challenge through, and don’t understand the question. 

The question concerns how we enforce agreed standards of behaviour. But the bigger question is why this is a problem. If we don’t understand this, we haven’t a hope of seeing why personal ownership of our behaviour as change agents is fundamentally important to our cause. Any change agent, or change advocate, must be a leader.

Accountability begins with us

The challenge with any problem is to analyze it effectively. That means asking the ‘right’ questions. 

I was at a community meeting on economic development in a small town in regional NSW several decades ago. A speaker was introduced as ‘the man with all the answers’ but he corrected his host, saying that he hoped he would be the man who helped the community ask the right questions. That response has stayed with me. Too often we base our actions and how we feel upon a not well-developed analysis of the problem. We go looking for answers too quickly. We think how we have framed the problem is the only and best way. We are rarely right.

When I started this blog in 2021 I was perplexed by reluctance of public sector executives to hold line managers accountable for permitting staff with disability to suffer under them. The legislation was clear. The policies were clear. The Code of Conduct was clear. Reports on the sector’s workforce made it abundantly apparent that the sector as a whole must “do better”. But what was that thing that it had to “do”? It certainly wasn’t the writing of yet more policies. 

There was a paradox for me. I knew many of the people who were in a position to take action, and who did act to an end unjust or injurious situation. But they didn’t hold the people responsible to account. Why not?

In the first half of 2021 I participated in a DEN presentation to the DCJ Board. I spoke about a DEN member forced to lodge an official grievance about the conduct of their manager, even though that unacceptable conduct was well known to executives the next 2 levels up. Why did they not take action over the conduct of a manager they were responsible for, and whose behaviour they knew to be unacceptable?

I argued that when a team member finds it necessary to submit a grievance about the conduct of a manager, that manager has failed in their relationship with that team member. It’s an opportunity to work with the manager to develop their skills in relating and communicating, not to forget empathy and caring. 

In essence this isn’t a situation where the manager should be punished for a failure, but an opportunity to assist them to develop the needed skills. It was a case of seeing a potential and acting upon it. 

The argument didn’t go down well. Not that it was rejected, just that nobody responded in a positive way. Had I missed something? I had, and I had no idea at the time what it was. 

As I listened to Jocko and Leif in The Dichotomy of Leadership the penny was beginning to drop. It had taken close on 3 years for me to begin to see what was going on. Jocko and Leif are US Navy Seals who teach their leadership insights to non-military organisations. That extreme perspective injects a novel element that has the potential to change how leadership is imagined – as a foundation of personal ownership.

You can’t have accountability without ownership 

A Seal’s perspective on life is interesting because when you intentionally put yourself in harm’s way owning that you have done that is essential. And yet they cite instance of Seals blaming others for things that could have had catastrophic consequences. 

It’s in our nature to blame others and excuse our failings. But like everything, the extent to which we own our situation is on a spectrum. 

Executive leaders must own their responsibility to a high degree to be where they are. But they are not saints.  They grow up, like we all do, in cultures with flawed people and nobody wants you to continually police others. So, we develop a tolerance for human failings. We learn to be silent at times when speaking out will cause more grief than we figure is necessary. 

Tolerance of harmful behaviour is something we all do. We can’t demand that organisational culture differs from our shared social culture. The claim that the NSW public sector does not tolerate bullying isn’t true. That’s an aspirational statement, not a statement of fact. But acknowledging this truth forces ownership to be taken. By saying the sector must do better, it becomes somebody else’s problem, and ownership is denied.

In The Dichotomy of Leadership Jocko and Leif show how their principle of extreme ownership must be used with subtlety. It can’t be imposed upon others outside well-defined situations. A perilous combat scenario isn’t the same as working in a public sector agency or company. 

Good people routinely fail to do things they theoretically ought to do. This isn’t a deficit, it’s the norm. Leif summed it up this way: “Good leaders are rare. Bad leaders are common”…”That’s just the way of the world.” This insight applies even among Seals – men selected because they have exceptional capabilities. In non-deficit terms he means that leaders not in need of a lot of development are rare and leaders who would benefit from significant support are common. The point to remember here is that the qualities being esteemed are emergent – novel and evolving.

The situation is made more complex by the fact that in any situation the competency demands made on us are task focused. Our ability to perform tasks at a required level of competence is constantly measured. But what is not measured and scarcely trained for is our ability to work skillfully with other people. This is the emergent element. 

We have human behaviour specialists but most of us get by on psychological folklore – which routinely misinterprets other people’s behaviour – and our own. We employ psychologists when things go wrong. Their job is usually to fix what others break. Effective leadership training can teach us how to not injure or break other people.

I have noted before that intentional inclusion is a cultural evolution. It is wanted and it is resisted. It takes intentional cognitive (intellectual and emotional) effort on top of normal life challenges. That resistance is normal and universal. We all resist. Resistance is not rejection. It is how we try to stay in control. We all try to manage how we respond to change.

Even a senior executive must engage in intentional processing of their own resistance to inclusion. This may happen as a self-determined act of personal and professional development (whether formal or informal). We can’t assume from a person’s role or status that they have greater knowledge of, or insight into, what we need to do to be more inclusive. 

Jocko and Leif talk about extreme ownership as something that must permeate our lives in a personal as well as a professional sense. I think there’s a critical link that wasn’t spelled out in Extreme Ownership and which they address in The Dichotomy of Leadership. That is that you can’t have extreme ownership in your professional life and not in your personal life and expect your insight on your professional life is going to be authentic.

But, yes, higher levels of ownership in one’s professional life are highly desired – just don’t imagine there is a perfect expression. Its aspirational, not diagnostic.

The idea of ownership itself isn’t novel or radical. We mostly know that we have a decent degree of ownership as it is. What is different is the ‘extreme’ element. 

This is about pushing beyond our zone of comfortable ownership into areas that challenge us, unsettle us, and which become a kind of existential risk-taking. 

Challenging others to be accountable for their actions isn’t something we are comfortable doing. In management dealing with unsatisfactory performance is often done poorly. It’s the conversation many mangers dread and avoid. We can get a sense of moral satisfaction when standing in judgement of people remote from us. But the closer we are the harder it is – which is why we mess up such encounters so often. 

A theory of the normal and how to evolve it. 

What we have as our normal reality isn’t, as we can so easily believe, a jumble of deficits and pluses so much as situations which may or may not be harmful to some and others which benefit some disproportionally. 

Inclusion is a response to an evolving cultural reality which seeks to diminish those injured by exclusion and in which benefit is shared by all. 

This is our normal and it’s not good or bad. It just is. There are no deficits, only potentials. Whether the potentials evolve quickly or slowly depends entirely on how those seeking to influence change perform. 

We can act as if we have a moral imperative to address deficits in others – and insist the desired change isn’t happening fast enough because of them. Or we can see that we lack the skills to advance the desired changes at the rate we want – and do something about being more effective. 

Heading in the right direction

The willingness of corporations and public sector agencies to engage management consultants and trainers is clear evidence that intentional improvement to how things are done is well-accepted. 

There are inclusion consultants, books, and podcasts. There is an abundance of research on how effective inclusion strategies are – which is nowhere near as effective as hoped for. 

But as with anything, we can’t prescribe the correct remedy unless we have the best diagnosis we can create. 

I am not claiming to be ‘the man with the answers’. I am still working on the questions. 

But what I do know is that our culture is evolving toward greater inclusivity, despite the fact that its moving at nowhere near the pace we’d like to see. I have seen the changes unfold progressively over the past 5 decades. Progress has been uneven, and people who continue to experience exclusion will continue to suffer in the workplace and in the community as that evolution progresses. 

Our community is under tremendous adaptive pressure on multiple fronts (social media, technology and AI, climate change, how we work, cultural and social values, and the list can go on). The evolution of greater inclusion is just one adaptive pressure. Like any adaptive change it takes cognitive effort and energy.

Our capacity as individuals to process the adaptive demands in our community and at work is limited. We have only so much time, so much attention and so much emotional energy to expend. For many, greater inclusion can be seen as just another burden that, while good to have, has to be pushed to the back burner while more critical demands are attended to. 

An alternative way of looking at things is that greater inclusion isn’t an additional burden, but something that is ‘always on’. It’s a frame of mind that I came to understand in 2018 when I was inspired by Kate Nash to completely rethink how I was doing things. But ‘always on’ isn’t for everyone.

The fact that the majority of our community members don’t share that ‘always on’ sense is a reality that can trigger morally self-righteous frustration. It can be seen as a deficit, rather than the blameless norm.

Sometimes inclusion activists settle down to a routine of low attainment. It can be an identity that is comfortable, and even rewarding. One can stand on the moral high ground and ascribe failure to the change resistors who refuse/fail to work to the same imperative.


As DEN Chair I learned a priceless lesson. My workplace community was full of goodwill that, if nurtured, could be harnessed in service of the cause of greater inclusion. 

I was routinely reminded by deaf and blind colleagues how I struggled to be mindful of their inclusion needs. How could I criticize others for their failure to be inclusive?

We could plant our respective diversity flags in a workplace community in an effort to morally colonize it – or we could model the behaviour we desired from others. We must own our imperfective spirit of inclusion and behave as aspirants with all our flaws, not enlightened prophets, not missionaries, and not colonists.

We forget that resistors against inclusion are individuals who are not driven by ill-will, but by competing imperatives. Yes, there are the sociopathic, the narcissistic and the psychopathic, but they are exceptional and rare. They are problematic in many ways, but they don’t merit exclusion, just management.

I firmly believe that accountability is a universal responsibility. It is a duty owed in a professional context, and this expectation is part of our evolving culture. You can’t have inclusion without accountability. Jocko’s and Leif’s idea of extreme ownership is the bedrock of taking responsibility for your own actions.

Driving change is hard. It takes skill. If the norm is change-resistance, then the potential is greater adaptative capacity which can be skillfully mined to achieve desired levels of inclusion. 

The inclusion advocate and change agent are where accountability starts. If we remember that great leaders are rare, but leadership skills can be learned, we can pause. We can ask whether we have what it takes to become exceptional, or even just good.

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