The path to leadership

Jun 01, 2018
To succeed as a true leader, one must embody a set of core traits and behaviours which can be developed through self-awareness and a willingness to grow.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who said: “A sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have, but how many leaders you create”. This is worth reflecting on as we consider what we mean by leadership, how we prepare for it, and how we embrace it when, finally, the prize is ours.

Technical competence is at the core of the Chartered Accountant – our discipline is an exacting one, and the training we undertake is rigorous and demanding. Rightly so, as many of us embark on careers in which we interpret and apply standards, guidance and codes of governance; we craft disclosures and market statements; we give the true and fair view of financial performance. Those of us who take our discipline into the non-accounting workplace bring with us that technical mindset, which provides a framework for how we approach the situations and challenges we face.

Busting the myths

How do we navigate the path to leadership? It is rarely something we are called upon to exhibit at the start of our career. Instead, it is something that comes later. My personal experience is of a career that happened in three phases – do, manage and lead. These are very different phases requiring very different competencies and, more importantly, dispositions. The last is perhaps the most challenging for the technically competent as to ‘lead’ is a role, an attitude, a presentation, and a way of being as opposed to a way of ‘doing’. Leadership is formed in the realm of emotional and behavioural intelligence, not in the realm of technical competence.

Leading is not about authority, instruction or ordering, nor always being out front. It is a role that you embody by empowering, enabling, influencing, inspiring and impacting. To do this, you need vision and purpose. You need to see something bigger than yourself that others can identify with, believe in and follow.

Starting from a technical place, how do we equip ourselves for leadership (assuming that we want to lead and know why we want it)? I will come back to the ‘why we want it’ later, as this is probably the most important determinant of just how good you can be as a leader.

Don’t fall for those myths that are peddled about leadership or let some idealised notion of a leader get in the way of developing your inner leader. There is no ‘one size fits all’ – there are as many leadership styles as there are leaders and the circumstances in which you lead play a big part in informing the style you develop
and adopt.

You don’t have to have all the answers; you just know how to get other people to find them. You do not always have to lead from the front – not every challenge is the Somme – and it’s not all about you. In fact, very little of it is about you; it’s all about the environment you create for others.

It’s not all high octane or high action; leadership requires reflection. And no-one is born to it. It’s not some ‘golden spoon’ that some are blessed with. Like a lot of things in life, it is a learnt behaviour and that learning often involves hard work with many knocks along the way.

So, having busted the myths, where do vision and purpose start within a person and how do we nurture and develop those traits and behaviours that encourage others to follow us?

Finding your inner leader

When we are in the ‘do’ and ‘manage’ phases of our lives, we are very caught up in a ‘production’ environment which, on the surface, doesn’t require any great thinking around purpose or vision. But these are the very places where we should start to give ourselves the time and space to think beyond the immediate and ask: what is the end game, and why am I doing this? If you are interested in challenging yourself with these questions, you may well have an inner leader that is trying to get out.

Very often, in the depths of doing you find the opportunity to lead – I found that in managing a structured asset finance business. In looking at how to optimise the balance sheet, I had a vision of a different way of managing risk and reward and from that, I lead a European risk syndication business. At first, I had few followers but senior people bought into the vision, trusted me to realise it and allowed me to get on with it. 

Vision without purpose and values will not get you very far. I learnt quickly that it is not enough to have messianic zeal and passion – you must articulate a better place if you want people to go there for you – it must make sense, serve a higher purpose, meet a greater need and be supported by values that people can relate to. Now, I am a business person and I wasn’t taking anyone to the promised land but I could see a place where, if we changed what we did, we could do more of it and I knew that was what people wanted.

When you take that step into leadership, make no mistake – you are putting yourself out there. You are separating yourself from the crowd and saying “look at me and follow me”. To succeed, I suggest there are a set of core traits and behaviours that true leaders have which can be developed through self-awareness and a willingness to grow.

Authenticity and values

Oprah Winfrey said: “I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become. If I had, I’d have done it a lot earlier”. It was no doubt said firmly ‘tongue-in-cheek’ but as ever, Oprah was on to something here. Why limit our thinking to assume she just meant money? Consider the influence this woman has and the impact her actions have on thought formation and activism across the world. We feel we know who she is when she speaks. This is because she appears true to herself and has the courage to let people see that self in all its elements. Then we identify, then we empathise because the leader has taken the first steps to demonstrate authenticity and opened themselves up to possible rejection – now that’s putting yourself out there.

Values are the soul-mate of authenticity. Without values, authenticity is hollow and people quickly see through it. Values take us beyond the charisma and allure of the person and into the heart of what the person is really about. When we know a person’s values, we can begin to understand their purpose. This allows us to interpret the vision that they are proposing we follow.

More wise words from Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you want to see in the world”. Leadership is fundamentally about consistency – who you present; what you present; the values you promote; the purpose you articulate; the example you set; what you say; what you do; how you treat others. If all of these do not connect consistently, you are not authentic. You may get things done, you may make people do things for you, but they will not be following you and you will not be leading.


Making and taking time to reflect is so important. Very often, we are all just too busy ‘doing’ to carve out time to reflect. Ponder that old saying: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there” and you will see that purpose and values, the cornerstones of leadership, are impossible to form and articulate without reflection.
The phrase “ancore imparo” translates to “I am still learning”. I have a beautiful bronze plaque with this quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. When we are open, we are always learning – about the world, about others and about ourselves. Take all that learning and reflect upon it. Do this daily; challenge yourself to rationalise what you are doing and why you are doing it. How does it inform and support your purpose and the leadership that you show? Hear what others say about you, to you, think about you – learn from it. Have the confidence to take the hard stuff on board that will make you better and trust yourself to discard the envious and mean-spirited elements that can get in the way.

Trust and respect

Trusting yourself and trusting others is something that leaders seem to do effortlessly. This suggests an inner confidence, security and balance. This comes from self-knowledge, authenticity and values which support your vision and purpose. You are not playing at being something or somebody, so you can be free to enjoy leading and trust yourself to do the right thing. You can also trust others and when you do that, you prove Gandhi’s point because as a leader, you make more leaders and create a virtuous circle of empowerment and impact.

The ability to trust has never been more important. We live in a mobile, integrated, technology-literate world. You cannot be everywhere, attend every meeting, always be with those you lead. So, share the leadership by creating other leaders. Disseminate your message through others and trust others to be the ambassadors of a shared vision and trust those who will realise that vision. In realising it, they make it their own. As Lao Tzu once said: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves”.

Finally, respect. This encompasses self-respect and the respect of others, both received and given. Don’t waste your time seeking popularity, it’s a fad, it’s fickle and easily replaced by the next more appealing thing on offer. Instead, earn and give respect. Respect is based on mutual understanding, hearing the voices of others and considering them. It is not earned by being always right. In my own experience, I have earned more respect from admitting to being wrong than I ever got from being right. Do the right thing by others – they may not agree with you, they may not like you, but they will respect you.

Mentoring in both directions

To be mentored and to mentor is an experience that will enrich your self-knowledge and aid your development and the development of others. Leadership is something that is learnt and what better way to learn than being mentored by a person whom you respect and see as a role model. While doing this, you too can be the mentor to someone who sees in you the character and values that they aspire to. In this relationship, you can discover how in leading you will create other leaders. So, what you gain from one experience is channelled into the other and the cycle of learning turns to the advantage of all concerned.


Let us go back to the question of why you would want to lead and how that determines the leader you can be. Why you want to lead is derived from your vision and purpose. When people see that your vision and purpose extend far beyond any personal self-interest and speak to something far bigger, they begin to listen; they begin to think about following you to the place you want them to go – to that place you have articulated and you exemplify every day in how you live the purpose that you promote.

Lynda Carroll is Head of Capital Allocation and Risk-Based Pricing at AIB.