Rebooting Accountability: From top-down to AA.

In last week’s blog I wrote about the limits of the corporate model that attempts to declare war in an effort to restore peace. I mentioned the root problem of drugs, gangs, and poverty itself; as well as its social, economic and political fragmentation. Using war to deal with social fragmentation is like using a chainsaw to do heart surgery; regardless of the skill of the surgeon, the operation is doomed to failure.

Of course many of these declarations are well intentioned, and are often launched amidst a strong rhetoric of ‘corporate or civic responsibility’. But the nature of war is that there must be winners and losers, heroes and villains, those who are on the side of the angels, and those who are not. And life just isn’t that black and white.

Regardless of the ultimate aim, retribution is never an appropriate substitute for restoration and transformation. When it comes to social goods and community change, as Gandhi reminded us, we must ‘be the change we seek’. If the root cause of so many of the social ills of the world is fragmentation, at the heart of social change must be a radical act of coming together. Literally, we must start in practice to model the opposite of the fragmentation we wish to address; else we are doomed even in our ‘goodness’ to perpetuate it. In simple terms, we have to find a way to enter into, and then help co-create, accountable communities over and over again, ad infinitum.

We must also be prepared to hear what those communities have to say in their own voice, since it is difficult for a community to define their priorities in a language chiefly created by institutions to express theirs.

Accountability –a much misunderstood term

I often hear people talking about the importance of accountability. It makes me wonder if what they’re really speaking about is the importance of being cooperative and compliant with the needs of those ‘above them’ to audit their work and measure their results. Certainly in a top down hierarchical system, that tends to be exactly how ‘accountability’ plays out. Sadly, this top-down command and control approach to building change all too often results in the very opposite of what accountability is really all about. Instead of smart decisions made by people who trust their own instincts because they’ve been trusted by those that are meant to support them, we end up with people who act as if they are ‘effect, not cause’. They are ‘done to’, or ‘done through’ people.

As I’ve written here, if we are serious about creating a future better than the past, we should not be praising compliance, we should be praising and actively supporting heresy as in many cases it is the most accountable course of action to take.

Peter Block has this to say about accountability:

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Peter Block. Image taken from

The dominant existing public conversation is retributive, not restorative. It is void of accountability and soft on commitment. In this way it drives us apart, it does not bring us together. The existing conversation is about entitlement, not accountability. To be accountable, among other things, means you act as an owner and part creator of whatever it is you wish to improve. In the absence of this, you are in the position of effect, not cause; a powerless stance.”

Hierarchical systems are by definition impersonal; they abhor the particular, the specific, the local and the intimate. If you don’t believe me, try kissing a client tomorrow and you will find out soon enough! Yet, these are the exact attributes needed if we are to restore social cohesion. Of course social cohesion does not happen at industrial scale, it is a relational process, non-mechanical, non-linear and unmanageable. This is one of the great contradictions of Corporate Social Responsibility. Most corporate entities, whether for profit, governmental or non-governmental, are of a scale that prevents them being personal and particular. Instead, being impersonal is considered a virtue, even a necessity. These institutions simply are too big to deal with people on a case-by-case basis, and therein lies the problem. The institutions can perhaps deal with the symptoms of social fragmentation at scale, with programmes and services, but they cannot deal with the root cause of these symptoms, which is relational breakdown. Our systems don’t do ‘touchy feely stuff’.

Yet, I suppose in the same way that we shouldn’t give out because our dog barks, nor should we be frustrated when systems do what they have been designed to do and no more, which is to provide goods and services. Of course what frustrates us most about our systems is not so much what they produce but what they don’t/can’t. Systems don’t and can’t care, and that’s the part that really gets up our noses. Systems don’t care, people do. Corporate Responsibility (CR) and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies imply a sort of ‘corporate care’, where in fact there can be none. Yet, how can we have responsibility and accountability without care and commitment to our fellow human beings?

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‘The Office’ TV comedy. Image taken from

This form of emotionless, relationship-averse accountability is ubiquitous not just in the corporate world, but also in the Public Sector and the Third Sector, and it is tantamount to death by a thousand cuts. It exists at one extreme of a continuum that actively moves away from intimacy, commitment to others and friends, and towards command and control. At the other end of this anti-commitment continuum, is the individual who thinks to themselves “forget all those overlords, telling me what to do, who do they think they are anyway?” “As long as I can look at myself in the mirror and I am happy with my decisions and my behaviour, then I am being accountable-to me”. Their resolve to hold themselves to account by sheer will power and personal wit, fundamentally misses the point of accountability. At a critical point, the point perhaps where it matters most, accountability is a social thing where we put other people, often people with less so-called power than us, before our systems and our egos and maybe even our mortgages. In the same way we can’t tickle ourselves, we can’t meaningfully hold ourselves to account for social action. We need to make ourselves vulnerable to the intimate connection of another – walking with people, feeling the feelings that surface, all the while listening deeply to their life’s yearnings, hanging at kitchen tables with regular people who will ‘tell it like it is’.

Being far removed from such opportunities (of course these opportunities are not removed from us, we have excused ourselves from connecting with them) creates somewhat of a conundrum: how can I be truly accountable to the whole world; whole society; whole company; whole community? It’s simply not possible. Eventually we’ve got to scale things down and introduce some semblance of relatedness and proportionality. We’ve got to connect.

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Lessons From a Year Spent on a Two Pizza Team

And that scares the corporate life out of us, because it means we need to scale everything down. For a superb analysis of what this might look like in practice read Paul Taylor’s recent blog Lessons From a Year Spent on a Two Pizza Team (it is stunningly good!).


Learning from AA

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Alcoholics Anonymous Great Britain

It is difficult to find examples of how this works in the corporate world, although there are some as the Bromford Lab illustrates. Notwithstanding, searching for a form of distributive relational accountability in competitive environments tends to throw up some utterly uncommon islands of health. Across a barren landscape, a relational desert consumes the greater part of the whole where the rule of thumb is that for me to win, you must lose. Therefore, the more fruitful territory is outside the corporate world, in associational life, where relatedness and intimacy are not alone a virtue but often the goal.

I have been studying such associations for the last twenty years, and am constantly struck by the sheer wealth of lessons to be found there. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a useful case in point, in that AA seeks to nourish the kind of accountability we’re after. I am particularly interested in the people who in AA circles are known as ‘two-steppers’, those who try to sidestep their accountability to themselves, the group and the process. These are people who follow step one -which is to accept and state within the group that you are an alcoholic- then jump over all the intervening steps and the associated interior and relational hard work to the twelfth step, which involves passing the gift of fellowship, support and teachings along -in essence to help another. They essentially try to pass along something that has not actually passed through them, and become part of who they are. And of course you can’t give away that which you have not yet received.

A healthy AA group does not hold people to account by means of hierarchical command and control, and while people are ultimately responsible for their own sobriety -you own your own sobriety and the labour and passage that gets you there- people are not accountable solely to themselves. There is a strong sense of group accountability, which is to say that members come to understand they are accountable to each other, to the process and principles, to themselves and, as they progress, to the passing on to others of what they have received.

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Book ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions’

The same ethos of accountability existed among many pirates when not at battle, and can be observed in many biker communities, book reading clubs, breastfeeding groups, and so on. So whether you call it fellowship, brotherhood, sisterhood, associational life, conviviality, or the result of operating to a shared set of principles or beliefs, what is clear is that these folks have figured out how to be committed and accountable to each other in a non-narcissistic and non-hierarchical way. They have figured out how to solve problems, explore possibilities and have fun in a way that brings them into closer connection.

That achievement to my mind stands in marked contrast to how most people create accountability: by personal will power, or organisational oversight, both of which create the opposite of group intimacy and commitment to the whole.

These forms of commitment and accountability are no doubt helped by the fact that their primary endeavor is not to commodify the relationships that flow and grow through them. They are not trying to service clients, market goods to customers, or move students through a curriculum. They are not trying to manage staff, convince trustees that they are hitting targets, incarcerate prisoners, or heal patients. There are no ‘end-users’ or ‘experts by experience’, because the members are ultimately equal and are all therefore responsible in part for the whole that they co-create-. And even the new entrants know they will be expected to ‘pass it on’, and become sponsors in their own right when the time comes.

This form of accountability is hard to recreate in the institutional world, where command and control are central features that ensure the production of standardised goods and services. The accountability I am referring to here fits best in the civic/associational world, which is primarily concerned with growth of community life and civic engagement.

That said there are many mediating organisations that wish to be actively benevolent towards the civic world and to use their resources in ways that grow community life; not market share. In other words, organisations that strongly want to get past the rhetoric of Corporate Responsibility (CR) and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and to be genuinely accountable to the people they serve.

For those that do, the message from AA and Bromford Lab seems pretty clear:

  1. Stay small
  2. Stay local
  3. Stay personal
  4. Don’t impose accountability, in a linear top-down way
  5. Do nourish accountability through practice and relationality

But what do we do with the two-steppers?

In the systems world we try to hold people accountable to set standards as they change practice, learn a new skill, hone a new craft. We curricularise and then we credentialise those who meet accepted standards. In that way, the myth has it that we thwart any would-be two steppers. These processes have their place. I certainly appreciate the fact that my son’s heart surgeon went through this process. But professionals who seek to serve the public good also need to cultivate their civic responsibility and not just their professional expertise. This labour of love is best achieved by being part of a small group of committed accountable people who know when you’re fooling yourself and them, and will say so in a way you’ll eventually hear.

We all know people who have attained a qualification, but have never cultivated the human qualities. They have the credentials but lack the credibility necessary to make the difference that makes a difference. In our homes, our communities and our home organisations we need more circles of supports without the power to bestow certification, but with the power to call out our humanity and accountability to each other. With the raise of a loving eyebrow, a gentle glare, a statement as casual as ‘come on buddy, who do you think you’re foolin’?’.a hug, an encouraging smile, a reminder that before you can give something away, you have to fully receive it and that comes at a price, it will involve some pain. In such circles two-steppers are called out, not thrown out, they are invited to step up, into their own agency and go through the journey.

These circles of friendship and accountability, far from being wooly and lightweight, are crucibles of fire that temper the steeliness we need to make the tough decisions and stay life’s course. They give us the chance to be part in creating something that training, supervision, credentials, and personal intraspection can’t: a powerful, committed and accountable community. I believe that the absence of this community is at the root not just of social fragmentation in civic life, but of burnout in professional life.  

Cormac Russell

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  • Circles of friendship and accountability -that are “crucibles of fire”. Just breathtakingly beautiful and profoundly inspirational.

    April 29, 2015 at 2:10 pm
  • Thanks so much for this generous and heartfelt response.

    BW Cormac

    April 29, 2015 at 8:00 pm
  • Woodman59

    I had never before considered AA as an exemplary situation in which, ironically, such progress has been fairly uniquely possible (outside of the sort of occasional more middle class ‘encounter group’, that counsellors might go on, perhaps).

    I’ll now look to contact a nearby AA group for some connection with our local community music initiative – it may be highly beneficial both ways.

    April 29, 2015 at 9:08 pm
  • Patrick Little

    Excellent, accurate observations. We shy away from the suggested remedy because it leaves us no place to hide. One of David Richo’s books has the sub-title; ‘How to become resourceful and defenceless in relationships’. This scares the hell out of the individual and collective ego which has, per definition, no appreciation for paradox and no trust in a ‘Power greater than itself’ Thank you!

    April 30, 2015 at 3:28 pm
  • Thanks Patrick, appreciate you taking time to share your thoughts. Really like the links you’ve made around the ego-really resonate. BW Cormac

    May 1, 2015 at 7:58 am
  • Anja Beinroth

    Beautifully explains why no amount of organisational rules and policies can create a well-functioning group, whereas good relationships and a culture that does not penalise mistakes but supports learning do. Thanks Cormac.

    May 2, 2015 at 10:50 am
    • Many thanks Anja, there’s no institutional proxy for free association. BW Cormac

      May 5, 2015 at 9:43 pm
  • Leanne

    AA and the people within it are often not healthy or accountable – even if they have studied the steps for years. There’s much abuse in AA, as well as lies and control. I lived it. I know.

    May 2, 2015 at 7:01 pm
    • nurturedevelopment

      I am really sorry to hear of that you have a bad experiences with some AA Groups.
      As we know, not all groups live up to their ethos and ideals, but what I am paying tribute to is the extent to which so many AA groups do, and in so doing have managed to keep commitment and accountability at the heart of their gatherings.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your experience.

      Good wishes

      May 5, 2015 at 1:23 pm

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