Many accounting firms are well-managed. In fact, some are over-managed and under-led.There are numerous conferences and courses devoted to managing an accounting practice. The American Institute of CPAs, several state societies, most regional associations and several consultants sponsor such programs. Much attention is paid to management and very little to leadership.

Management is just as important as leadership, but their successful implementation is quite different. Management is about efficiency, whereas leadership is about effectiveness. Management is about doing things right, whereas leadership is about doing the right things. Management is a timing issue, whereas leadership is a directional issue. The best accounting firms have a healthy mix of good management and good leadership.

In my research and teaching, I have found that the great leaders develop themselves around five key roles: self, strategy, staff, systems and alignment. Within each role, great leaders develop specific skills and disciplines. John Maxwell discusses the "Law of the Lid" in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. He says that your organization has a lid on its growth, and that lid is the leadership ability of the chief executive. If your CEO's quotient is a five out of a possible 10, then no one in your organization will be better than a five. But Maxwell declares that you can raise the lid through diligent study and effort. And when you do, your entire organization will benefit.


Great leaders lead themselves well before attempting to lead others. Great leaders set the example. John Wesley said, "When you set yourself on fire, the whole world will come to watch and some may learn to read by the light you give off." When you are passionate about your mission and vision, followers will step in behind you and learn to lead from your example.

All great leaders are on a compelling mission and have a clear vision of the future. In other words, leaders are going somewhere. They are able to enlist others in their vision when the mission is exciting.

Novice and sometimes ineffective leaders rely totally on their position or title. A person can lead for a short time and for a short distance on title. In order to be an effective and long-term leader, you must rise to a level of personhood, where people follow you because of who you are and what you represent. The greatest leaders have great character, build long-term relationships with people, develop strong expertise, develop a sixth sense or vision, and have a track record of successes.


Great leaders look to the future. They build a vision and enlist others in the quest. The greatest leaders and organizations have a compelling mission and a set of core values around which they develop their strategy.

Important to strategy is the ability to lay out your goals, plan your actions, establish priorities, identify resources and then act. Many CEOs spend endless hours planning and setting priorities but fail to act. They will never become leaders unless they move forward.


When staff members respect and admire you, they will follow you. The real test of respect comes when you, as the leader, ask for a commitment or for a change. When followers trust you, they will be willing to make a commitment or undertake the demands necessary for change.

In many management circles, discussion tends to relegate staff members to moveable pieces of furniture without much regard for their backgrounds, experience and desires.

Great leaders connect with staff members openly and sincerely. Great leaders connect with staff on their level, and invest in the professional development of their followers.

Staff members have many needs, some of which can be fulfilled through their work. They need compensation and job security. They need fulfilling and challenging work, and they need to know that they can be a part of a growing and learning organization.

But staff members mostly need to know that they make a difference in the lives and businesses of other people. Great leaders find a way to obtain their vision by influencing staff members and meeting their needs.


The former leaders of MCI-WorldCom were terrific at casting the vision and enlisting others to join them. But the lack of attention to internal systems turned potentially good leaders into criminals. At one time, it was reported that through all the acquisitions, MCI was operating over 50 billing and collection systems. Some customers were receiving multiple bills for the same service, and others were not billed at all. The hundreds of acquisitions that MCI made, the different cultures and the various systems simply broke under the weight of the growth.

Great leaders pay close attention to the systems of the business. Systems for marketing and growing the business are vital. Systems for recruiting and retaining the right people enable the firm to progress toward its vision. Systems for financial reporting and decision-making allow managers and leaders to allocate resources toward the most profitable investments. Systems for doing the work, billing the clients, purchasing supplies and processing the paper flow are all vital to the smooth functioning of an organization.


Like a good auto mechanic or chiropractor, great leaders make certain that the staff members, systems and strategy are in alignment. If the leader is out of alignment with the strategy, the vision will never be achieved. If the staff members are not the right staff members and aren't in alignment with the leader and the strategy, the vision won't be reached. And of course, systems are the support. Most people come to work every day with the intent of doing great work, but are frustrated that the support systems are misaligned.

Leaders ensure that their inner circle is well versed on the vision and that it is communicated throughout the firm. Without alignment, strategy will always be difficult.

Troy Waugh, CPA, MBA, is CEO of marketing and consulting organizations Five Star3 LLC and the Rainmaker Academy in Nashville, Tenn.

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