As a coach, one of the things I hear from potential and current clients is that part of what they’re looking for is accountability. They want someone to help hold their feet to the fire and keep them on track. Having someone in your life who knows what you’re going for and does her/his best to help you follow the path you’ve chosen is useful, yet I think it misses part of the point.

My experience is that for most people, accountability in this form is about being obligated to do what you said you would do because someone else will judge you on your failure or success. This thinking is common, in part, because most of us have grown up in cultural systems that are based on this judging, “pass/fail” model, and we learn to behave in ways that our culture (or organization, family, peer group, etc.) will deem acceptable.

While seeking to remain on “the good side” of people who are important to us isn’t necessarily a bad thing, using this as the primary motivational driver of our choices is both limiting and uninspiring.

We need to widen our view of accountability

We are accountable to everyone, because our choices, which flow from our beliefs, habits, and desires, ripple out to potentially affect the entire world. Though one could interpret such accountability in the same way as the earlier examples (i.e., using fear of judgment to compel certain behavior on our part), I find them near opposites. When I recognize my interconnection with all other life-forms on this planet, I see that I matter and my choices are important.

“Life is not accountable to us. We are accountable to life.”

~ Denis Waitley

Rather than worrying what others will think of the choices I make, I focus on making choices that reflect who I am and how I value the interconnectedness of life. I am inspired by the opportunity to do as Bernie Siegel, MD, once suggested: “to contribute love in [my] own way.” It’s about being accountable to myself and all others simultaneously — because this is reality, this is actually the way our world works.

Service is the new accountability

Finally, accountability, in the “traditional” sense is often about a relationship that is unequal. One person has authority over the other (to a greater or lesser degree). The perception is that the one “holding the other accountable” is somehow superior and that the one being held accountable is in need of someone to make them follow through on their own word. While I know that we all have times when we break our word or otherwise fall short of following through on our commitments, being “beholden” to another doesn’t necessarily lessen the chances that we will fall short.

“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”

~ Moliere

For me, a better way to think of accountability is to think of one’s life as being in service to something. Making choices and then following through, or not following through, serves some purpose.

  • We heal or we wound.
  • We awaken or we slumber.
  • We connect or we retreat.
  • We love or we hate.

With every choice we make, we serve to create some effect on our world. The effect either fosters more of what we want in our world or less. The effect either brings greater connection or greater separation. Regardless of whether others applaud or rebuke our choices, we all live with their effects. Perhaps author and physician Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, said it best.

“Service rests on the basic premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life is a holy mystery with an unknown purpose. When we serve, we know that we belong to life and to that purpose….From the perspective of service, we are all connected: All suffering is like my suffering, and all joy is like my joy. The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing.”