The leading edge: Tips from the AICPA Leadership Academy

These tips from the AICPA Leadership Academy can help you influence and inspire others.

The profession is hungry for young leaders. With Baby Boomers retiring in record numbers, a wealth of opportunities are available to young CPAs who can exercise leadership. Leadership has many definitions, but I define it as the capacity to influence human thought, emotion, and behavior, starting with my own. Put simply, leadership is intentional influence. How should CPAs, young and old, go about cultivating their capacity for intentional influence? Here are a few tips from the AICPA Leadership Academy for up-and-coming stars in the accounting profession.


Gretchen Pisano, one of the academy’s two facilitators, teaches an incredibly important lesson: Leadership starts within. This process begins with a deep understanding of your strengths. What things come naturally to you? What things energize you? Assume you find that you are energized by analysis. When your analytical mind gets started, you’re capable of amazing things. The next step is determining how this strength can be productively applied in influencing others.

Effective leaders focus on cultivating self-awareness “in the moment,” the ability to recognize in real time how others are experiencing them. It’s quite possible that your analytical strength will at times be experienced by others as interrogation (question after question). For maximum influence, great leaders calibrate their strengths to the context in which they are operating. They recognize in real time how others are experiencing their strengths and adjust accordingly. At the Leadership Academy, this self-awareness begins with introspection and assessment. Sometimes, it can be hard to look closely at your own reflection. However, only when you get to know yourself, warts and all, can your leadership come from a natural, truly authentic place that will inspire others.

Why do so many people fail to get to know themselves? Is it just the busyness of life and other distractions? Are they afraid of what they might find? Mark Twain famously said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Those rare individuals who possess the courage to engage in the kind of introspection and hard work to “find out why” develop a quiet assurance that enables them to powerfully and sustainably inspire others.


Tom Hood, CPA/CITP, CGMA, executive director of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the other Leadership Academy facilitator, is fond of saying that great leaders set context and then provide hope and inspiration. Context is critical. People are often blind to context. They struggle to see the forest for the trees.

When leaders create shared meaning and context in their team, they make it much more likely that the team members will move past a myopic focus on individual trees and buy into a unified vision of the larger forest. Say that the company has decided to implement a new practice management system. If all the company does is roll it out to all and tell them how great it is, it’s likely to meet with initial resistance. After all, why would people want to spend extra time learning a new system when the one they have seems to be serving them relatively well? Do they really want the pain of that change?

There may be perfectly legitimate reasons to adopt the new system (a firm merger and the need for consistency within the merged firms, a need to better manage the sales cycle, etc.). However, without that context, it can be very difficult for those tasked with implementation to truly buy in. If leaders appropriately set context by helping everyone see the bigger picture, then the odds of successful implementation go up significantly.


Another maxim from the Leadership Academy: Intellect can clarify intention, but only emotion moves people to act. You can create elegant spreadsheet models that contain all the “right answers,” but those spreadsheets alone are unlikely to inspire actions aligned with those answers. It’s only when clear intention is married with emotion that the right actions come about.

To be successful in their influence, leaders must become masters of understanding how to engage the emotions of those they lead. When action is required, leaders focus on building compelling stories that connect with what people believe rather than simply what they want to do. To do this effectively requires understanding what they believe.

Adam Grant, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of The New York Times best-seller Give and Take, has found through his research that one of the greatest untapped sources of motivation is a sense of service to others.

In one experiment, Grant placed signs at different hand-washing stations in a hospital. One sign read, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases”; another read, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” He found that hospital staff used 45% more soap at the stations where the sign referred to patients.

How often do people take the opportunity to help their employees see how their work makes a difference for someone else? When staff in public accounting look at the growing pile of tax returns, can they connect those returns with the people they are serving? Do they see how the work they do makes a difference for their clients and co-workers? Leaders who want to tap into the discretionary effort of their teams will focus on making the connection between the work they do and the difference it makes in the lives of real people.

Have you made it a practice to take younger team members to client or customer meetings? Where that is not possible, are you taking the time to share stories about those meetings? Be intentional about helping your team connect the dots between the work they do and the people they serve. The increased engagement levels you achieve will be well worth the small investment of time.


It may seem counterintuitive, but when it comes to proposing a course of action, you’re never more influential than when you take a tentative position. Strong advocacy of a position can actually diminish your ability to influence others. Take a look at an example in the context of public accounting that illustrates the difference between the two approaches:

Approach No. 1: “Billable hours are a relic of a bygone age. We need to abandon all time sheets, and anyone who thinks otherwise needs to get with the times.”

Approach No. 2: “I have been doing a lot of reading about value pricing, but I have some concerns about how it could be practically implemented at our firm. I have spoken with a few CPAs at conferences who have had some amazing results, but I’m not completely sold on it yet. I’d really like to get your thoughts on the topic.”

Which approach is more effective? What’s the likely response to Approach No. 1? Defensiveness? Silence? What’s the likely response to Approach No. 2? Inquiry! If you want to build buy-in and consensus, then your goal is inquiry before advocacy. You want to open people’s minds to the possibilities and explore their concerns and feelings, and potential gaps in their understanding. That’s what gives you a glimpse of what they believe. It’s only then that you can be truly successful in leadership, and in influencing human thought, emotion, and behavior.


Great leaders don’t just solve problems; they create opportunities. Does the profession need effective managers who can solve problems? Absolutely. However, if you really want to distinguish yourself as a leader, focus on creating opportunities. When you focus on solving a particular problem, you constrain your thinking and the thinking of others. Consider the following example:

Example No. 1 (problem focus): “We have a problem with employee morale. Turnover is up, and productivity is down. How do we fix this?”

Example No. 2 (opportunity focus): “We have an opportunity to increase the engagement level of each team member. In doing so, we will all find more enjoyment at work and improve profitability. What’s the one thing we could do that would have the biggest impact on the team’s engagement level?”

What sorts of thoughts does the first example provoke? Focusing on the problem frames things in a way that actually limits your thinking. When you frame things in terms of an opportunity, you unleash the creativity of your teams and get better results.


Leadership can be defined as intentional influence, the ability to sway human thought, emotion, and behavior. 

Leadership begins with understanding your strengths, a process that starts with honest introspection and assessment. It continues with learning how to use those strengths to influence others.

Effective leaders recognize in real time how others are experiencing them. This allows them to calibrate the context in which they are operating and adjust their approach for maximum effect.

The best leaders encourage inquiry. Leaders who take a tentative position in proposing a course of action exert greater influence than those who make a strong push. 

Great leaders frame their thinking in terms of opportunities, not simply solving problems. This wider perspective inspires more creativity and better results. 

Dan Griffiths ( ) is director of strategic planning at Tanner LLC in Salt Lake City.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at or 919-402-4056.


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