How each of us perceives leadership depends on whether we’re giving advice/feedback or receiving it. That might sound negative since there are leadership styles that are effective and still treat others with dignity, but there’s still a lot of truth to it. While we may think we are “natural leaders” or have the traits necessary to be in charge of projects, teams, and organizations even without formal leadership training and high-level job titles, our actual abilities are going to be a blend of several sources, such as our personalities, informal relationships, volunteer opportunities, various levels of work experience, education, mentors, and business books.

To be a leader within your organization and grow professionally, you must first understand your influences. Next, you need to assess your skills and determine how to improve them. Here are a few ideas that have stayed with me over the years and can help you become a leader at any level of your organization.


What have been some of my influences as a leader in both work and volunteer settings? Before I explain, I’ll say that some of them aren’t as much influences as they are affirmations of themes that have resonated with me over the years. My first influence is from Strengths Based Leadership by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie. About 10 years ago, my mentor asked me to read this research-based tome. The authors’ strengths-based leadership approach clicked for me when I compared it to the “management by exception” approach I was used to, where I heard from the boss only when something was wrong. I did my job the best I could and dealt with problems as they arose.

When I changed jobs to where the strengths-based mentality was more prevalent, I was pleasantly surprised to hear positive feedback about what I did well. In fact, I was motivated to focus on those strengths, including one I had discounted as “psychobabble” but that my mentor said was “the best for our business” (a consulting company). It was connectedness, or wanting to know how people and ideas are connected (such as how client needs are connected to company resources or even to typical networking skills). It meant I should go ahead and purposefully act on my strengths, which is like “doing what you love.”


There are a couple of examples in my life when this particular strength bore fruit. Through IMA, I met a leader in accounting technology, Liv Watson. And through her, I interacted with Charlie Hoffman, coauthor of XBRL for Dummies. When our firm was looking to expand in the XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language) area, I volunteered to put our new products director in touch with Liv and Charlie. The director said, “Are you kidding? The ‘Mother and Father of XBRL’? Do it!”

The curiosity aspect of this strength has taught me to ask questions in a number of situations where others may not feel comfortable, including at board meetings or major conference sessions. It’s gratifying when speakers or other leaders thank me for asking questions that both engage others and enhance the purpose of the meeting. If you’re going to be known for something, it might as well be for something helpful.


Another concept that resonates for me is servant leadership as made popular by Robert K. Greenleaf and strongly supported by IMA Chair Ben Mulling. For me, this way of leading provides a “why” in any exercise of authority, whether formal or a virtual dotted-line collaboration, as is often found in modern “flat” organizations where a leader may have a team that reports administratively to someone else. While leading for the sake of self-gratification or aggrandizement is common enough and not appreciated by most of us, serving others while leading just makes sense to me because it aligns with my upbringing and personality. To borrow a current term, it’s a more “sustainable” leadership model because bridges stay intact rather than getting burned behind us as we climb to the top of the ladder of success.

I just want to help people. In my family, the magic words were more than “please” and “thank you.” They were “What can I do to help?” Taking this tack may help reduce the collateral damage that can come from any unnecessary conflicts, such as how saying “I’m sorry” may disarm unproductive anger or “I could be wrong” increases open dialog when addressing issues.


Finally, let’s consider the right kind of “decisiveness” as a leadership attribute. I wish it were simple, but you often need balance when making decisions. One of the traits of management accountants is analytical tendencies in which we might fall into the “paralysis by analysis” trap. As the flip side of intuitive and quick decisions, this sometimes prized ability can lead to unwise pursuits down rabbit holes or wholesale decision disasters. The trick is to make the right decision, not just the fast one. Providing a safe environment for teams to engage in constructive conflict seems like an effective way forward. Leaders should encourage open conversations so that employees can voice different and opposing alternatives to clear a path to the best choice.


We have before us two choices today: (1) ignore leadership development and take the consequences or (2) embrace improvement opportunities of leadership growth and become the leaders—or effective “team players”—we all wish we had or were. Recognizing all of your positive influences and optimizing your highest strengths, as I eventually started doing, is satisfying and beneficial to your company, family, volunteer organizations, and even yourself. Even if leadership isn’t one of your strengths, you owe it to yourself and others to become a leader among the followers. We can’t all be the boss, but we can all help lead our organizations to success.



The IMA® Leadership Academy provides leadership opportunities for all members. From leadership assessment to leadership courses offered in person as well as through WebEx to participation opportunities in mentoring, be it reverse or traditional, the IMA Leadership Academy can help you meet your leadership goals and improve your leadership skills. For more information, please visit the Leadership Academy website at

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