In the now classic film Apocalypse Now, the scene that has always struck me as perhaps the most frightening is the one in which Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen), on his quest upriver to find Colonel Kurtz, comes to a camp where American soldiers rebuild a bridge each day, and the Viet Cong blow it up each night.  When Willard asks a soldier, “Who’s in charge here?” the soldier replies, “Ain’t you?” 

Discussions of leadership and accountability in the nonprofit sector are everywhere, and perennial—they repeat themselves. But sadly, they are usually overly narrow. For example, most discussions of accountability focus on transparency and governance mechanisms meant to ensure truth telling. As important as these aspects are, they approach only one level of accountability.  Properly understood, accountability has at least three key levels (as I’ve written elsewhere):
• “Don’t rip us off”: the level of not cooking the books or otherwise hiding the ball;
• “Be effective”: the level at which being accountable means not simply being honest, but also being competent, using the best available practices.  (To draw an example from the legal field, a lawyer can be honest [insert lawyer joke here] but still commit malpractice by failing to provide competent representation); and
• “Promise keeping”: to my mind, this is the highest level. It demands that you do everything in your power to accomplish your mission, to keep your promise to the community. 
Many honest and competent organizations (and people—myself included) don’t meet this higher test of accountability.

Leadership is too often taken up separately from accountability.  In many views, accountability is on a separate track altogether—a matter of merely complying with regulations, and implementing administrative practices to support that compliance.  And when leadership and accountability are discussed together, accountability is often viewed as simply a function of a leader’s character (honesty, candor, and the like).

But the true test of leadership should be the same as the highest concept of accountability: Does the leader do everything in her power to accomplish the mission, to keep her promise to those served?

Too often we only talk about all the reasons something cannot be done, or why it is not our job to do it.  In bureaucracies (be they government, nonprofit, or private sector), the incentives are often only negative. Taking risks never results in rewards, only punishment. There is safety in the narrow view, and so it prevails.

That narrower approach can keep us on the right side of the “Don’t rip us off” level of accountability, but it can also undercut the “Be effective” and “Promise keeping” levels.  That narrow view won’t cure cancer, or stop global warming, or cut poverty by half, or inspire people to be their best selves; it won’t do any of the things nonprofits exist to do, or that we should demand that government accomplish.

In a recent discussion with some friends, they observed that how we frame our questions makes a huge difference in what we can accomplish. Asking “How can we do it?” is worlds apart from “Can it be done?”  Which question seems more likely to lead to social innovation? Which is better suited to meeting our highest duties?  Devoting so much attention and energy to the “Don’t rip us off” level of accountability—particularly in the nonprofit sector—has been a huge missed opportunity.

The scene from Apocalypse Now is frightening on multiple levels, but two among them are (1) no one seems to be responsible for the fate of the soldiers and their mission, and (2) the soldiers themselves feel constrained to play the role that so clearly isn’t working for them. (“Stay the course,” anyone?) 

If you don’t stretch to meet your promise-keeping duty—the greater vision—even the most honest and capable people can find themselves in a similar box.  The job of leadership, or promise keeping, is to reveal the possibilities. 

imagePeter Manzo is the director of strategic initiatives for the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization, and a senior research fellow with the Center for Civil Society in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Previously, he was the executive director and general counsel of the Center for Nonprofit Management.