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LEADING YOUR ACCOUNTING TEAM: It’s Not Just About the Numbers

Initially, this article was supposed to be entitled “Managing Your Accounting Team;” but, having been a student of leadership for the past fifteen to twenty years, I have come to realize and embrace the significant difference between “management” and “leadership”. Given the general consensus within the leadership community that there is an overabundance of management and a general lack of authentic leadership, I have decided to focus on leadership.

Of course one of the problems with taking a comparative stance of leadership versus management is that management usually gets the short end of the stick. Inevitably comparisons elevate the lofty idealism of “leadership” far above the mundane, day-to-day, pragmatism of “management”. This mind set is exemplified by quotes such as “A manager say “Go”, A leader says “Let’s Go””, or “Managers light fires under people, Leaders light fires in people” or “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”.

In whatever manner we view the veracity of these insights, the truth is we tend to view “management” in a more negative light than “leadership”. The truth is that “management” is as vital to success as “leadership”, their focus may be different but their desired outcome should ultimately be two sides of the same coin.

Because of the enormous breadth and scope of the subject matter, one that people spend lifetimes delving into, we’ll need to take the proverbial fifty-thousand-foot view of things moving forward. With that said let’s consider “management” versus “leadership”:

As a very, very general rule leadership tends to be more concerned with overall vision, attitudes, and a variety of the more esoteric, “people-related” concerns such as motivation, inspiration, behaviors, delegation and alike. Management, on the other hand, tends to address the more pragmatic, task-oriented issues such as methods, skills, policies and procedures, adherence to budgets, scheduling and similar day-to-day functions.

Good leaders excel at not only conveying where a group is headed but why they’re heading there. They understand that for people to work most effectively, especially in the long run, they must be able to inspire them with a clear and meaningful vision. Leaders also understand the value of trust and its position as the bedrock of the relationships with those entrusted to their care; they trust and are trustworthy.

Good managers, on the other hand, understand the task at hand, the destination and are adept at finding the most effective and efficient way of getting there. They are the gatekeepers entrusted with the task of making sure things get done the way they’re supposed to, when they’re supposed to and hopefully on or under budget. Sometimes their methods can seem impersonal but the necessity of what they do and the direction they provide is invaluable to the success of any organization.

Not surprisingly, one thing that almost all leadership (and management) experts agree on is that by necessity the “gap” between the two is getting smaller and smaller. In effect, good leaders must deal with managerial issues and good managers must possess, to a degree, good leadership skills.

Leaving the world of management behind, let’s turn our focus to leadership – more specifically authentic leadership. I’m careful to include the term authentic (defined as real or genuine), because all too often what we may witness or be subjected to during our own lives and careers differs dramatically from the “ideal”, from the very terms and characteristics that define authentic leadership.

When I started the exercise of brainstorming the various traits and characteristics that define authentic leadership I realized quickly that the exercise itself could be an entire day-long seminar and that within the list itself, any one item could be turned into its own day-long seminar… remember we’re still at fifty thousand feet.

Challenge: I challenge you to set this article aside for a few minutes, pick up a pen and paper (okay, you can use a laptop, iPad or iPhone if you’re not as old-school as I am) and create a list of your own. Think about the authentic leaders that may have crossed your path or that you’ve read about along your journey and write down the traits and/or characteristics that make them rise to the top of the proverbial heap. Ask yourself the simple question “What is it that makes them different, that sets them apart from everybody else?” Go ahead, set this aside and go make your list, I’ll wait… no seriously I’ll wait…go ahead, please, take the time and go make your list…

So how did you do? Were you surprised at all by some of the things that made your list? I have to admit, it amazes me, the things we come up with when we intentionally sit and think about things and even more amazing are the things we ultimately realize we take for granted. Before I share a few of the things that made my list that might surprise you a little, I’m thinking it might be helpful to back up a step or two and set the stage by starting with what leadership ISN’T. This can be a real stumbling block for some folks but they’ll just need to pick themselves up and get over it.

Ready?

Authentic leadership is NOT… a position or a title, sorry. Being a CEO, CFO, COO, CIO, E-I-E-I-O, Managing Partner, Vice President, Director, Manager, Shift Supervisor, Captain, Colonel, General, Congressman, Senator, President, Owner, fill in the blank, does NOT make a person a leader. It gives them a certain amount of authority and responsibility but it does not make them a leader. Sadly, I’m sure many of us could point to all too familiar examples of this truth – people who carry the title, but cannot fill the shoes.

With that truth behind us, let’s move forward and get back to some of things that made my list, a few of which even surprised me. Here we go:

  • Authentic leadership is… a privilege; remember we’re talking about authentic leadership. The truth is authentic leaders view their role as an honor to have been entrusted with the welfare of others and they take that role very seriously.
  • Next, authentic leadership is… a trust. As we discussed briefly, authentic leaders understand the concept of trust, what it means to trust others and to be trustworthy and they understand trust’s critical role in the relational dynamics of those they lead and they work to strengthen the bonds of trust whenever possible.
  • Although there are quite a few more items on the list, the single most important one is… authentic leadership is, without exception, always about others. Again, this could be a day-long seminar, make that a week-long conference, and may possibly be a point of contention with some of you, and that’s okay, but in the end there’s just no way around it.

Check your own list and see how many of the traits you listed are “others-focused” as opposed to “self-focused”. If your list is like mine, every single one!

I could go on and on just about the characteristics of authentic leadership but I hope the point is clear: more than anything authentic leadership is PERSONAL. It’s not a nine to five thing or something that can be turned on when you walk through the door in the morning and turned off at night when you leave. It’s less about what you do and more about who you are. Maybe that’s why in a world where a premium is placed on anything that promotes “self”, authentic leadership, can be so difficult to find.

Truth be told, at day’s end all leaders will need to be able to address the more pragmatic concerns of the day. Issues such as dealing with and defining the value of “failure” /mistakes (because we all make them), the power of delegation, micro-management, goals and objectives, project management, discovering and cultivating talent, etc. all need to be dealt with.

But in the end maybe my mother and father, authentic leaders in their own right, knew best of all when upon my being sent to my room for “nothing”, they would lovingly remind me that… it’s not what you say, but how you say it that counts. I miss them.

Want to step up in your firm as an authentic leader? Join my colleagues and I for an intensive, interactive leadership series brought to you by Accountex USA, in collaboration with the team at SUM Innovation, on Thursday, September 7, 2017. As part of Accountex 2017, this day-long program is designed to help emerging leaders in small to medium-sized accounting and bookkeeping practices transform their firm, shift the culture, embrace technology, and influence others. Learn more at accountexusa.com/emerging-leaders/

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