Helping People do the Impossible: The Radical Role of Personal Accountability

The University of Michigan football team had a dismal year in 2020.  At one point, on television, Urban Meyer, the former coach at Ohio State, was asked for his opinion.  My expectations were very low.  Meyer surprised me by sharing a gem that reflected the wisdom of a masterful change agent.

Meyer moved from the question about Michigan to a focus on his own experiences at Ohio State.  He said that occasionally an assistant coach would tell him that a certain player “had a problem.”  He would tell the assistant coach that all Ohio State players were recruited as elite athletes.  They had the necessary talent.  If a given player was not performing, it meant the assistant coach was not doing his job, he was not bringing out the best in the player.  The problem was not in the player but in the assistant coach.  He needed to grow into his job or leave.

A friend has been a successful consultant for decades.  He told me of a meeting with a number of consultants in which they would gather and review the progress of each of their clients.  One day one consultant was complaining about a client organization that was making little progress.  My friend responded, “There are no bad clients only bad consultants.  You are criticizing the client because you do not know how to move the client from where they are to where they need to be.  The client is not the problem, you are the problem.”

When I interviewed world class public school teachers, they consistently indicated that it was their job to reach every student, including the students that others defined as unteachable.  If any student was failing, they found it unacceptable.  They would throw themselves at the student, learning in real time how to help the student learn.  As master teachers they took accountability for the success of every student.

There is a pattern here.  Conventional people, when frustrated, embrace a fixed mindset. They define the athlete, client, student, direct report, customer or whoever as a problematic object that that is beyond hope.   This insures a relationship in which the other cannot grow.  The expert is creating a relationship that reinforces the false starting assumption.

People who are masters of influence embrace a growth mindset that first of all requires them to evolve into a new and better version of self.  This personal accountability creates a relationship in which the challenged person feels safe and motivated.  The person can grow.  The master loves the other enough to sacrifice, to create the space in which the other can do what for them seems impossible.



  • When someone treats you as a problem, how to you respond?
  • When someone makes a personal sacrifice in your behalf, how do you respond?
  • As a leader are you an expert or a master of influence?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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