Leadership is a skill much like running a marathon. It can be learned and, with practice, perfected and mastered. The goal of a leader is to positively influence the individuals who have decided to follow you. Your supervisor isn’t necessarily your leader, although he or she may be the person providing direction. The leader is the individual who inspires people to pursue company and professional goals. Even if you may not be in a leadership position per se, you can still be the individual whom others look to for advice, mentoring, or guidance.

Adaptability is a key component. My path to the accounting and business profession was a roundabout one. I started out wanting to be a high school counselor, but then with a B.A. in psychology I was looking for a job to pay the bills. My first professional position in business was as an assistant manager for an apartment complex.

This opportunity started me down the career path of business and management accounting. This was also my first business leadership role and the first of several experiences in which I had mentors take a chance on me, giving me the ability to test out new skills and environments and to learn from new opportunities, mentors, and experiences. These are the moments that helped me develop my professional leadership style and establish a few fundamental approaches to leading.

1. Do what comes naturally. Being authentic is about being comfortable as a leader. You must follow the path that’s right for you. If speaking up comes naturally, then that’s your style. If delegating or listening is more suitable to your style, then that’s the skill set to practice. All the way through college, my experience with leadership took an authoritarian form. I was not this type of person, so I accepted I wasn’t a leader. But as I continued organizing tasks, coordinating small groups, and mentoring peers, I eventually recognized that these skills were leadership, too. I found roles where my skills were needed—and, as it turned out, I could be a leader while staying true to who I was as a person. If you try to be someone else, it will show and your motives and honesty will be called into question. Authenticity is a trait that your team will be happy to emulate.

2. Learn new skills. A leader can’t fall behind. You must continue to learn. Keeping up to date can be as simple as attending a webinar or reading industry magazines like Strategic Finance. You can complete a new degree or certification. Another great source is attending a local IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) meeting. Whether by learning the newest accounting software or studying the latest finance trend, a leader is expected to know the field and changes taking place in the industry. Since the leader is often the first stop in a survey of opinions, your views must be current to be taken seriously.

3. Adapt to the situation. There are many leadership styles, and you may not have the right skills or background for every situation. This requires knowing when to defer or find an expert. On the other hand, it’s key to know when to take the lead and stretch, even if the situation requires learning new skills. As a leader, I had to educate my colleagues within the organization on what was required to accomplish our goals. To achieve this, I led by example. For me, this meant becoming a Certified Internal Auditor while I was also pursuing the CMA® (Certified Management Accountant) certification.

4. Use the leadership examples in your life. Following best practices from leaders in your life is very different from copying their style and actions. If you have seen a practice that you feel is a great example of leadership, consider applying this example in a new or unknown situation. Using this method is an excellent way to gain knowledge and skills.

5. Take advantage of the opportunities. The more leadership opportunities you have, the more developed and evolved your leadership style will become. Again, like the marathon runner, it’s practice and application that will allow you to win the race.

If you find that the opportunities in your work environment are limited or untimely, seek out the many other opportunities available to build your leadership skills. Starting with your time in college, you can become involved in numerous activities and clubs, such as your local IMA student chapter or the annual IMA Student Leadership Conference. Whenever possible, volunteer to lead activities or events or participate in organizations active in your areas of interest. Once you’re out of school, these kinds of opportunities only grow. Join your local professional organizations, such as IMA, or consider pursuing CMA certification. Don’t stop there. Become involved in the local or regional chapter or on boards or committees. You also can become involved in an organization such as your local school board or PTA. These are great ways to exercise and grow your leadership skills.

Once involved, you’ll quickly earn the recognition of your peers within the volunteer groups, your community, and your work. You will build your confidence, and your leadership portfolio will develop. The new portfolio will give you opportunities both within your community and within your field.

Unknown and surprising opportunities have arisen from my volunteer leadership experiences. For example, through a volunteer leadership experience with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, I learned to handle income taxes, something I hadn’t studied in school. I met a former city mayor and the city auditor through volunteer leadership roles. In addition, I have transitioned into teaching in part through the influence of individuals I’ve met along the way. The last four employment positions I’ve accepted have all been due to my leadership portfolio. I am continually invited to participate on boards and committees. I believe that growing and practicing your leadership can be the stepping stones to a successful career.


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 https://www.imanet.org/career-resources/leadership-academy.

About the Authors