Imagine that you saw this headline in the WSCPA Short Form:
“CPA Sells His Soul for Influence!”
You would likely be horrified because this person worked hard to gain a reputation for integrity and then chose to lose it.
People who would sell their integrity or reputation for power do not understand leadership. Sadly, many professionals in the CPA world also do not understand or practice true leadership, even though CPA 2025 identifies it as a core competency. This article will tell you why our profession has a severe shortage of able and willing leaders and how this lack impacts you and your organization. I will identify five actions you can take to improve the quality of leadership in your business and in your life.
To those that do not understand it, leadership is perceived as having all the power and telling others what to do. Many share the confusion that managing and leading are the same efforts. Our profession has many managers but very few leaders. CPA managers love the status quo, while CPA leaders love change. CPA managers exist to control events and people, while the CPA leaders thrive on chaos and confusion. Accounting is what we are trained to do; leading is what we must do.
Leadership and Your Bottom-Line
As a profession, it is time we face some hard truths. Here are specific reasons I urge you to own up to the obligation to have impact and influence.
Poor leadership practices cost the typical organization an amount equal to as much as 7 percent of their total annual sales.
One poor leader costs a company over $126,000 in low productivity, high turnover, and dissension.
Nearly 44 percent of American workers have worked for a supervisor or employer who they consider abusive.
Poor leadership hurts everyone in your organization. Good leadership makes everyone better. Which do you choose?
How to Know if You are a True Leader
So that you accurately understand leadership, let’s start at the beginning with the 1st Natural Law of Leadership:
The success of any team, company, and nation is always dependent on the quality of its leadership.
This means if your CPA firm, your accounting team, your not-for-profit, or your government agency is not at its best, the first step must be to improve everyone’s ability to lead.
True leadership is not about having power; it is about having beneficial influence and impact. Do you want to impact employees, clients, the public, your children, or friends? Are you expected to influence others so that they pay taxes timely, act ethically, serve the customer, or deliver profitable revenue opportunities? If you answered “yes” to these questions, then you are a leader. However…
Over 70 percent of people in a leadership role say, “I am NOT a leader. Please don’t apply that label to me.” These individuals—and you might be one—are reluctant to be defined as ‘the one in charge.’ To help you understand why our profession has a large concentration of people who say, “I am not a leader; I’m only a CPA” let’s explore this question: How does a person become a leader?
Go back in your memory to when you were 5 or 6. Think about that time when an adult in your life asked you this funny question: What do you want to be when you grow up? Think about how you answered that query:
“I want to be a fireman, a policeman.”
“I want to take care of sick animals.”
“I’ll be a teacher, a doctor.”
“I wanna be a mommy or a daddy.”
“I am going to fly into space.”
Of all the answers you gave, do you recall giving this one? I WANT TO BE A LEADER! Even though you did not give that answer, you became a leader anyway. That’s both funny and ironic!
Consider this: What do the responsibilities of a CFO, a controller, a business owner, a parent, a CPA firm partner, an executive, a volunteer, or a change agent all have in common?
- You have people relying on you to accomplish something.
- You have an impact on the outcome and the means to achieve it.
- You must rely on others to achieve the outcomes.
- You influence others by your words and actions.
That is what a leader does. If any of these conditions apply, you are a perceived by others as the person with the reins. Therefore, you are supposed to act and think like a leader! All of the professions I mentioned need leaders—people who want to influence the direction and tone of their chosen profession. However, when your reluctance is obvious, people could disrespect you, ignore you, or go around you. Once this happens, it is hard to regain your influence.
Now that you recognize you are the one in charge but may be uncomfortable with this responsibility, I share three keys to help you own the obligation to have beneficial impact and influence.
First Key: Own Your Reluctance
The first key to being a person of influence and impact is to accept and acknowledge that it is okay to be a reluctant leader. Many in our profession are uncomfortable with the responsibilities, burdens, and the high cost of being designated as the one in charge. The first and foremost reason people are fearful is the myth that a leader is perfect; a leader should never make mistakes. The second reason for declining this honor is ultimate accountability. When you are the one in charge the buck stops with you. There is no room for excuses, blaming others, or claiming “I didn’t know.”
It is normal to feel reluctant about being the one people look up to. Yet, to gain respect and get things done through others, you must overcome this innate reluctance. You are uncomfortable because leading is both natural and unnatural. The unnatural part of leading is what I call the art of leadership. It’s scary to realize that everyone is looking at you for guidance and direction. It’s intimidating to know that should you fail to deliver, many people get hurt.
To obtain the respect you deserve, you must first grow comfortable leading yourself. Self-leadership is defined as the internal ability to convince oneself to make the best choices and decisions on a moment-by-moment basis throughout the day. The 2nd Natural Law of Leadership states: You cannot lead others until you can lead yourself.
Second Key: Adjust Your Attitude
You may wonder, “How do I lead myself?” The answer is the second key to feeling comfortable with leadership responsibilities. You start by internalizing that true leadership is an attitude, not a calling.
Your reluctance to lead from the front ceases once you adopt the leader attitude: “I can and will have an impact and make a difference for others.” Leadership is not a box on the organization chart or an elected office. Leadership is not about the title or the perks. Leadership does not come through education or with age. You learn HOW TO LEAD by leading. As you learn to lead, you will crash and burn more than you succeed. Over time, your wins will be greater than your losses; that is how a leader grows.
Anyone can lead. I have seen children as young as six take on the role of leader. My 8-year old granddaughter Naomi decided to run for class president because she wants to have impact or influence on her classmates, yet she has never been in charge. She is learning both the art and science of leading in her relationships with her brother and classmates and by observing her parents, teachers, and of course me.
Leadership is a bond of trust between you and the people you lead. It is they who give you feedback on your ability to lead. Many reluctant leaders are not paying attention when those around them say, “I want to follow you because I believe in you. I trust you.”
Third Key: Seize the Opportunity to Lead
The third key to having the courage to say, “I am your leader” is to change your perception. The leadership door is available to us, though you may not see it. This door opens for us several times a day but is disguised as hard work or greater responsibility. You likely became the leader when:
Your boss resigned or took a leave of absence.
You earned a promotion for excellent work.
You shared some great ideas and the boss said, “Make it happen.”
A committee lost its way and you said, “Let’s go in this direction.”
At a meeting, nothing was getting accomplished so you stood up and said, “I have an idea.”
In other words, you were in the right place at the right time! You became a leader simply because you saw a void and filled it by walking through the door of opportunity.
Most reluctant leaders are technically trained people like you who have a track record of accomplishment. Those who work with you saw something special in you and either opened the door for you or shoved you through it.
This leadership door is really an opportunity to have an impact, to change things for the better, to influence others in positive ways. The most amazing aspect of leading is this: once you have walked through that door and discovered what you can do, you will always be a leader. You will define yourself differently. You can no longer hide from the opportunity to serve others because when you see the door opening, a part of you wants to walk through it. You will carry the leadership attitude within you for the rest of your life.
Why do I believe that our profession has a shortage of able leaders? Here are two reasons. In December 2014, INC. Magazine featured an article titled 12 Fatal Flaws that Derail Leaders. The author, Lolly Daskal, CEO of Lead from Within, provides a list of detrimental behaviors that prove we are not concerned about our impact on others. Throughout my 35 years as a CPA, I regularly see members of our profession engaging in 9 of those 12 behaviors: 1) not setting the example; 2) not building people skills; 3) not having a vision; 4) delegating badly or not at all; 5) not fostering emotional intelligence; 6) ignoring the team’s development; 7) lowering standards; 8) letting integrity slide; and the one I see most often is 9) resisting change.
My second reason is found in our selection of credit courses (CPE). To be a good athlete, you must test your abilities frequently and train consistently. To be a good leader, you must enhance your existing leadership skills frequently and learn new skills consistently. Yet, when we vote with our dollars, leadership training loses out. The attendance figures from all 50 state societies and the AICPA show that we do not take leadership courses when they are offered; instead, we spend over 80 percent of our CPE dollars on technical training!
Still, don’t think you’re a leader? One More Test
Now for your final test to prove that you are truly a leader:
Do you want a better world for you and younger generations?
Do you want improved beneficial outcomes in society and our profession?
Do you want to leave your mark on your sphere of influence such as your team, firm, employer, or family?
A “yes” answer proves again that you are a leader. The 3rd Natural Law of Leadership states: Improvement is not a random event; things do not get better until someone leads the effort.
You can have a better world, improved outcomes, and leave your mark by walking through that leadership door whenever it opens. You don’t have to feel alone; it works best if you take others with you because of the 4th Natural Law of Leadership: A good leader develops more good leaders. Identify people around you—colleagues, employees, volunteers, even interns—who have a desire to influence and want to have an impact. Encourage, mentor, and give them opportunities to be the one in charge.
We can have a profession that enjoys an abundance of leaders at all levels. Together and individually we can get there by:
1) Being okay with our reluctance to wear the leader label.
2) Adopting the leader attitude “I can and will have an impact and make a difference with others.”
3) Walk through the opportunity door with courage and conviction.
4) Spark the desire to have influence and impact on yourself and others.
5) Commit to taking at least three leadership courses every year.
You don’t need power to change the world. Heck; you don’t even need to sell your soul to make society and our profession better. All you need to do is believe, “If it is to be, it is up to me.”