Leadership: A Guest Post from Tenacious Truman

Leadership: One Man’s Perspective

by Tenacious Truman

Upon retiring after serving 30 years in the U.S. Air Force, Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt.) Tim Omdal offered some parting words of wisdom to his fellow airmen. As he transitioned into civilian life, he wanted most to talk about leadership.

At re: The Auditors we spend a lot of time talking about leadership—mostly the lack of it. We bemoan the “auditor” mentality, the substitution of management for leadership, and the lack of accountability. So I thought I would try to translate CMSgt. Omdal’s words and see if they resonated for people in our profession. Of course, translations are imprecise and this one is no exception. So any mistakes are mine, not his.

Here goes:

We are all leaders in some way and each of us will influence at least 10,000 other people in our lifetime. So the question is not if you will influence someone, but how will you use your influence?

1. Look like a Leader: I learned early on that first impressions go a long way. Do you look like a leader? Are you fit? Is your shirt pressed? Are you ever in need of a haircut? Do you wear your clothes correctly and proudly? As leaders, we all set the example for others to follow; we must always be the role model for others to follow.

2. Act like a Leader: How is a leader supposed to act? Leaders aren’t afraid to step out and make the tough decisions. It may not be the most popular decision, but the right decision is often not the most popular. All of us, regardless of rank, are charged to enforce standards. Leaders don’t walk past problems but correct the problem or provide solutions to their supervisors. Our people want to be led. Give them guidance and direction, step back and you will be amazed.

3. Be a Leader: When I think of a leader, I think of my first supervisor. He cared for me. He would often stop by my cubicle and check to make sure everything was okay. The week before I took my CPA, he stopped by to give me one last quiz and the confidence that I could score above a 75 on my exam. I knew he would be there for me if I needed him; he believed in me. He saw potential in me that I didn’t know existed and always provided me with both positive and constructive feedback that made me want to do better. He was a leader who challenged and developed me as an accountant and person.

Being an average accountant was not acceptable. In the days when we did not have electronic publications, I became the office librarian’s best friend. He would require me to visit the office library to check out the current pronouncements and emerging trends. I was required to read each and every publication that was identified in my development plan, which helped me to develop a hunger to be the best accountant in our firm. Rather than ask someone what GAAP required, I would always get the books and find it for myself. He was a leader who invested back into others, and there is no doubt I’m where I am because of him, and the influence he had in my life and development as a person. He looked like a leader, acted like a leader and he was a leader.

4. We need Leadership, not “Likership”. What do I mean by “likership”? While not in the dictionary, the meaning is clear when seen in the context of the other attributes of an effective leader … be a leader not a follower. We can all relate to a leader or supervisor who wants to be liked, which is natural, but there is a difference between a leader who treats people with respect and makes the tough decisions versus a supervisor who is afraid to make a decision or does not hold people accountable or enforce standards. What about a leader who is afraid to give tough love when it is required, or a leader who tells the partners what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.

We also have those leaders whose staff are all superstars—and who do not give them the ratings they have earned, but rather what the staff feel they are entitled to. We also have those “leaders” who always pass the buck up the chain; any decision that is not popular, they blame the decision on “they” rather than explaining they are a part of “they.” Will you always be liked by everyone? Probably not, but leadership is not about a popularity contest but about developing and growing people. Robert Coles, a Professor at Harvard University said it best, “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure, which is try to please everybody.”

CMSgt. Omdal concluded with these words:
I believe our people want to be led; they want to be challenged and have leadership who hold them accountable—and we owe this to them. As I depart and look over my shoulder, I see great staff that look like leaders, act like leaders, and are leaders. I encourage you to fight for leadership and not “likership”. Thanks for your continued service and what you do each and every day but more importantly what you will do for our firm and for our profession in the future.

Graphic used by permission of Hugh McLeod

@gapingvoid on Twitter

20 replies
  1. TheGoodWife
    TheGoodWife says:

    Wow! I could give you a list of supposed “Leaders” at Deloitte who should read this post. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t get it. There was only one true leader in my group. He should have been the face of the firm. Instead, they sent him packing.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I think there’s a key difference between a leader and manager. A manager is appointed and identified through title, a leader is adopted and identified through their team. Managers are not always good leaders, although almost all good leaders are also good managers. A manager makes things happen, and a leader inspires people to make things happen. I could go on all day but you get the point.

  3. Tenacious Truman
    Tenacious Truman says:

    Anonymous @ 3 —

    I think a better distinction would be that managers manage people and events and issues toward a successful resolution, while leaders guide and inspire people to resolve events and issues on their own. Leaders have a vision for the future and a passion for achieving it, while managers deal (more or less effectively) with the current state of things.

    In CMSgt. Omdal’s world — which is about as far from accounting/auditing as I can imagine — leaders know that their subordinates’ lives depend on being led well, and also know that the success of the mission depends more on the capabilities of the team than of the leader. In other words, leadership means direction, guidance–and the necessary training/development so that the team can execute. All elements need to be present in order to succeed.

    You might argue that all elements need to be present in an accounting firm or audit team in order to succeed, and I wouldn’t argue with you. That’s why I translated and posted his farewell address to his comrades. But let’s face it, the stakes are absolutely not the same. In our world, if we make a mistake, we can correct and even restate. In CMSgt. Odal’s world, when somebody makes a mistake, people die.

    (Envision that last sentence being said in a Jack Nicholson voice.)

    — Tenacious T.

  4. William Roberts
    William Roberts says:

    @TheGoodWife: That is why Deloitte is no longer a leading brand, but rather a stale old managed brand. The impact of selling out good values and good people and transitioning to a managed brand will eventually bite them in the arse. Consumers of products and services are smart and eventually get it – this holds true for a bad cell phone product (for example) as well as for the poor price/value relationship of what Deloitte is selling to Fortune 500 companies. Deloitte “Leadership” does not seem to grasp that a big % of what they charge clients relates to brand, and the Deloitte brand has less value now than it did two years ago.

  5. Philip J. Fry
    Philip J. Fry says:

    There is a flip side to this argument. Leaders focus on grand strategy and bold visions but managers handle the day-to-day nuts and bolts issues of running and maintaining an organization. Sandy Weill of Citigroup was a good example of a leader who was focused on leading but not concerned enough with the mundane task of managing the empire that he built. Maybe we need more capable managers who take ownership of their work and fewer leaders looking to build their reputations.

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    @6 – I agree. We need both leaders and managers. In fact we need fewers leaders than managers. The B4 is a big topsy turvy on this — they do not make good managers (because the reward system doesn’t incentivize people to manage well). We start off being good doers — rewarded for utilization not quality. Then the managers don’t know how to manage for quality and are encouraged to join the visionary ranks. The result is a mess of visions that might not be too organized and synchronized.

  7. Tenacious Truman
    Tenacious Truman says:

    Anon @ 7,

    Perhaps CMSgt. Odal would say that, in his line of work, everybody is expected to be a leader. Everybody is expected to guide, enforce standards and discipline, and to develop subordinates. I bet he would say that, in the military, the very definition of rank is inextricably linked to leadership. I.e., by definition, a Colonel is a better leader than a Captain–or should be.

    What would our little business world look like if we adopted that point of view? That’s the notion that first caught my imagination. What if a Manager was a better leader than a Senior, and making Partner was tied (at least in part) to an assessment of how good a leader one was? How might that change things for the firms?

    I would argue that all of the discussion about “high-peformance culture” is without substance unless it also encompasses a discussion about leadership. I don’t see how a firm drives performance and quality without also driving those attributes that Odal says are attributes of leadership.

    Moreover, many of the current problems and failings often discussed here are manifestations of a lack of leadership, yes? So if one root cause is a lack of leadership, I would want to see the firms define the kind of leadership they want to develop, and then drive towards that model. The military has one model that works pretty darn well–for it. How would the firms tailor and adapt such a model to meet their (obvious) needs? That’s a very important question, at least to me.

    — Tenacious T.

  8. Philip J. Fry
    Philip J. Fry says:

    TT – The military has intangible incentives that enable the type of leadership qualities you describe, which will never be possible in the public accounting. Career officers and NCOs accept lower wages than their civilian counterparts because they truly want to be there. They view their jobs as a calling not a mere occupation, and it’s that attachement to their work that provides the incentive to lead and excel in their chosen field. You’ll never see that kind of desire in any auditor or tax accountant, which means you’ll never get that kind of leadership in the Big 4.

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    @9 I cannot believe we would want to model leadership around the military. Military leadership is very authoritarian and hierarchical in a way that is necessary when facing potential death and little time to coordinate and discuss the situation. In a battlefield one needs to have that absolute trust in leadership that means following the order without question. In the corporate world we want and need people to collaborate, debate, challenge and team. These are not military leadership qualities. Why would one want to model corporate leadership the same way as the military? Further, why can’t we get to the same integrity in the corporate world as in the military — because I think a lot of what TT and you have discussed is more about integrity than leadership. I think we can — and just like in the military, some have that integrity and some do not. I would argue that most people on this planet are honest people with integrity.

  10. Tenacious Truman
    Tenacious Truman says:

    Anonymous @ 10,

    I’m not sure if you are deliberately misreading the discussion or have a blind spot. Either way, nobody is saying that “we would want to model leadership around the military.”

    I have a lot of other thoughts around your other points but I’m refraining, giving you the chance to re-read what has been posted and reply to the actual words instead of whatever story you’re telling yourself.

    — Tenacious T.

  11. Tony Rezko
    Tony Rezko says:

    10 – quite an oversimplification, that. I’ve led in the military and in B4 accounting. You’re correct that the military can’t call a meeting to debrief the meeting for the meeting, which I think is a good thing. I think if you do some more research on former military leaders in the corporate world, especially my fellow former leathernecks, it will open your eyes. We’re not all robots.

    Also, collaboration, debate, challenge and “team” are the essence of military leadership.

    All that said, I wouldn’t want corporate life to completely mirror military life, and your argument is not without its merits. But 9 is correct, I never gave my military pay a second thought, and I’ll be damned if I’ll show the same selflessness to the partners of my firm when poor 2010 raises come out.

  12. Philip J. Fry
    Philip J. Fry says:

    TT – Let’s get back to your question of why can’t the Big 4 enjoy that same level of leadership as the military. Why can’t a manager at PwC or E&Y show the same committment and leadership qualities as a captain in the marine corps or a sergeant in the army? I think the answer to that question rests with kind of people drawn to each profession.

    Your typical military officer: He joined the military because he wanted to be part of the military, not because of money or to build his resume. By choosing a career that appeals to him on a deeper level than mere pay he is more likely to care about his work and want to do it well.

    Your typical Big 4 auditor: He joined his firm because the pay was good and he wanted to get a Big 4 name on his resume for his next job. He may have stuck around to make manager but that had more to do with being stuck in a comfort zone of a familiar job than out of desire to be an auditor. His career choice reflects his desire to make money, and the job itself is almost incidental to that.

    Of course, there are soliders who half-ass their jobs and there are auditors who have are genuinely excited about what they do. But in general, these broad stereotypes about the military and the Big 4 have a lot of truth behind them. So with that in mind, is it really that hard to see why true leaders are more likely to be found in the military than in the Big 4?

  13. Francine
    Francine says:

    @13 @TT

    Let me throw a monkey wrench into this discussion. I think accounting is not only a profession but a vocation. Whether you are a pubic accountant, an industry accountant or working for the government, as a CPA you are bound a a professional to a code of ethics.

    From a post I did last year at this time:

    From the AICPA’s Section 50 – Principles of Professional Conduct:

    “By accepting membership, a certified public accountant assumes an obligation of self-discipline above and beyond the requirements of laws and regulations.

    The Principles call for an unswerving commitment to honorable behavior, even at the sacrifice of personal advantage.

    A distinguishing mark of a profession is acceptance of its responsibility to the public. The accounting profession’s public consists of clients, credit grantors, governments, employers, investors, the business and financial community, and others who rely on the objectivity and integrity of certified public accountants to maintain the orderly functioning of commerce. This reliance imposes a public interest responsibility on certified public accountants…In return for the faith that the public reposes in them, members should seek continually to demonstrate their dedication to professional excellence…

  14. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I could also argue that many join the military because:

    1) they cannot afford college and this way they can get someone to pay their way
    2) they have few skills and this is a job that will take almost anyone
    3) that officers in the military thrive on power and control

    And as many have mentioned many join for altruistic reasons and a sense of duty. Why are we holding the good soldiers up against the poor corporate/B4 leaders? Why not take a good corporate leader against a poor soldier.

    I think the only real difference here — in the corporate world is that life is not on the line… as a result there are more nuances to leadership. It is easy to be the terrific leader who will not leave a soldier behind when it is a matter of that soldier dying. It is not the same to compare that leader to one who lays off (leaves behind) an employee when the alternative isn’t death but may well be a better career somewhere else.

    I respect the military plenty — and I think there are many terrific qualities in military leaders. But how can we hold up an institution as having such terrific leadership — when in their ranks they cannot even accept diversity and have used a don’t ask/don’t tell policy to destroy the lives of many soldiers. I would not make the story one sided here. Does our top military leadership serve their soldiers well when they leave them to rot in VA hospitals, won’t acknowledge PTSD as a real illness, and do not help them integrate back into society (which I admit they have improved upon in recent years)… but the point is that military leadership has done far worse to their soldiers who have sacrificed far more than a lay off.

    TT’s post — I mostly agree with (I don’t buy the look like a leader in terms of what you wear… but look on some level I accept)… But underneath all that in the military is a lot of terrible things that lead to Gitmo, Abo Dabi (I cannot spell it), My Lai, and all the things that are covered up and don’t hit the news. I like the leadership talk – dislike the military analogy. It is hard to read your point as a result of this huge cloud in the way. Military leader speeches are as much spin and rah-rah as the annual meetings the B4 hold to show how much they care and give us the rah rah for the future. I take them both with a grain of salt.

  15. Tenacious Truman
    Tenacious Truman says:

    Philip J. Fry @ 13 —

    If you reread the original post, which discusses attributes of leadership and four different phases of leadership, I don’t think you’ll see anything that is limited only to the military. I would assert that the leadership characteristics CMSgt. Odal thinks are important, are the same ones that the accounting profession SHOULD think are important.

    More importantly, leaders are made, not born. (In my opinion.) The military focuses on developing leaders and teaches leadership and fosters leadership. Leadership is inculcated into the culture. Why don’t the Big 4 firms think about developing their own leadership? Trust me, for a fraction of what is spent on “branding” and “high-performance culture” and other internal gimmicks, the firms could each have effective courses on “leadership for seniors” or “leadership for managers” and have their teams exposed to the “right stuff”. Would doing so solve all problems? Of course not. But it would be a start in the right direction.

    Also, Fran @ 14,

    Yes. It is almost the definition of the word “profession” that one is called to it–which is why “priest” was one of the earliest professions. The dichotomy between being called to a profession and simply being in it for the money is profound. Public accounting is more than a “for-profit business” — or ought to be.

    To all, I don’t think that this discussion should be military vs. accounting. (And it hasn’t really been about that yet.) I would hope that readers would consider how leadership might be fostered in an accounting firm, what the attributes of a successful accounting leader might be, and how each one of us could strive to lead rather than blindly follow (or “manage”).

    If you’re a partner, consider how to “lead” your practice better.

    If you’re a manager, consider how to “lead” your team(s) better.

    If you’re a senior, consider how to “lead” your staff better.

    It would be a great way to start the new year, in my opinion.

    — Tenacious T.

  16. Philip J. Fry
    Philip J. Fry says:

    TT @ 16 –

    I guess the point I was trying to make is that leadership as you describe it cannot thrive in an environment where the people are motivated primarily by money. True leaders are motivated by intangible drives, love of their work, a desire to be there, a sense of purpose in what they do. How many auditors have you worked with that really loved their work?

    As you yourself correctly pointed out, public accounting is a for-profit business. The workers in this profession don’t love their work, they’re in it for the financial rewards. Mercenaries don’t make good generals.

  17. Tony Rezko
    Tony Rezko says:

    Philip and TT, great discussion.

    I think TT’s focus on leadership is on the right track. (I also agree it’s not just about the military, and didn’t intend to veer off topic.) I would also concede to some extent Philip’s point on mercenaries and generals. Maybe I’m trying to hedge my bets here, but I think you can encourage a focus on leadership (if you don’t want to think military, think GE perhaps), even if the results won’t mirror other organizations due to the motives of the employees (or employers for that matter).

    Maybe we work backwards and say, what is wrong with our culture, and what traits do we expect in our leaders that will change that culture for the better? Much easier said than done.

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