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Book Review
Accountability: Freedom and Responsibility Without Control

by Rob Lebow, Randy Spitzer
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 276 pages, $12.57

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Summer reading usually consists of lighter material you can breeze through while lounging next to a body of water. Accountability fits the bill. This entertaining quick read features an added bonus — it’s chock-full of worthwhile wisdom for managers and will alter the way you lead people in a positive fashion.

Authors Lebow and Spitzer take a novel approach to dispensing information and Accountability journeys a road seldom taken by business books. This fictionalized narrative takes place during the course of a train ride and features conversations between Kip, a former CEO, and Pete, a current CEO facing a myriad of challenges and growing pains with his company. Other characters are added and given vivid personalities while Kip takes the role of advisor to “type-A” Pete. This approach illustrates each character's situation and translates it into a universal business truth.

Accountability flies in the face of most business books by challenging conventional beliefs about employee accountability and performance. Kip tells Pete “Getting people to be accountable requires that you stop trying to impose accountability on them.” He adds that the key to achieving this is by letting go of his controlling behavior. Pete and others on the train initially resist Kip’s premise as an unrealistic, touchy-feely solution akin to letting the inmates run the asylum. Kip explains that his epiphany came when he realized that people work better when they are free to do it their way.

“Business leaders will try just about every crazy idea, gimmick, or program under the sun before they’re willing to consider a freedom-based approach of trusting people and treating them like adults,” says Kip. He outlines his points using Control-Based Thinking versus Freedom-Based Thinking modules:

Control-Based Thinking Freedom-Based Thinking
Imposes Authority Grants Individual Freedom as a Right
Offers Rewards Asks Everyone to Be Personally Responsible
Grants Conditional Freedom Has Faith in People

Lebow and Spitzer use stories effectively to support Kip’s radical message. One story recalls how Harley-Davidson was mired in controls in 1981 when they bought the company back from AMF. After going through control-based programs, they toured Honda and saw there were only ten supervisors for 700 employees. Honda’s freedom-based approach to workers was paying off. Noting that Honda’s quality far surpassed theirs, the Harley-Davidson management team returned to their plant and changed everything. The results were impressive — workers became more responsible and their attitudes and performance improved dramatically.

Kip relates that about five percent don’t make it in a freedom-based workplace. “My experience suggests that only a small percentage of people take advantage of an open society. But that’s better than the alternative of 80 percent not taking responsibility.” He cites Nordstrom’s famous one page employee handbook that contains one rule: “Use your good judgment in all situations.” Empowering employees is a message many business books convey, but few do it as thoroughly and engagingly. Leaders looking to transform the minds and work habits of employees will find Accountability offers an easy-to-follow road map to their destination.

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