Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Word: Accountability

My last entry for The Word explored "expert" and questioned it's definition as it applies to modern life. This time, I'll write about "accountability," which is defined by Merriam-Webster's Dictionary as:

accountability: \ə-ˌkau̇n-tə-ˈbi-lə-tē\

Function: noun
Date: 1794

: the quality or state of being accountable ; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions <public officials lacking accountability>

Further research indicates that root words accountable and account are even older, dating back to 14th century Middle English acounte and accompte, as well as from the Anglo-French acunte from acunter. You would think that in all that time, such an important concept would occupy a more prominent position in society.

Not so long ago, I was going through my mental repertoire of words trying to find the perfect one to slide into a sentence. It was at the tip of my tongue - but it wouldn't come out. Not to be stymied by a mental block, I asked my core-network if they could help me figure it out:

"What is the word or two-word phrase that means when you do something wrong, you accept responsibility for it without question or excuse?"

The next few moments were filled with contemplation and deep thought, but no answers. I was a little disappointed. Surprised, I was not.

Shortly, I did figure it out and when I looked it up at Merriam's, I was amused to see their example sentence of public officials lacking it. I don't usually like to get into politics on this blog, but I'd be lying if I said our political leaders weren't partly the reason why accountability is The Word today, but its not the only reason.

It's a word and a human quality which has been underutilized to the detriment of our society. If you pay any attention to the news, you've probably realized that it's definition is almost a foreign concept at all levels of our culture right now. Government waste, shoddy business practices, frivolous lawsuits, and mass personal debt litters our civilization. But there is hope.

Have you ever heard the phrase "Everything old is new again"? Similar to how "cool," "groovy," and "right on" tend to cycle in and out of popular vernacular (and "recession," "depression," and "stagflation" for that matter), words and concepts can come back into favor. Just like how "economical," "frugal," and "thrifty" are starting to replace "wasteful," "decadent," and "extravagant," I am absolutely certain that "accountable" is on the verge of seeing it's day in the sun. The reason is in its definition of responsibility, which simply means "able to answer for one's conduct and obligations." In almost all aspects of life, we have to answer to others for our actions, whether its our friends, family, government, creditors, employers, or clients - and whether we like it or not. Good or bad, all actions have repercussions that may not always be understood at first but will undoubtedly make themselves known despite whatever attempts are made to stop them or cover them up.

The trick is to realize first that as an individuals and organizations we will be held accountable for our deeds, then we should act accordingly. Just as importantly, we should hold others responsible for their actions as well.

It is said that the engineers building the great structures of ancient Rome stood accountable for their work by literally standing within the archways as the capstones were put into place. I know I could stand under my own arch. Could you?

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