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Why Accountants Make Horrible Business Leaders

Too many accountants fail to build the skills required of great business leaders, and its about time we put that to an end!

Peter Drucker wrote: “Leadership is something that must be learned.” So when I say accountants make horrible business leaders, please know that it is primarily their choice--they could be great business leaders if they wanted to put in the work and discipline themselves to develop the key leadership skills. There are basically five areas of learned leadership that I’m going to discuss, each of them critical to being a great business leader.

Before I start, I need to share a couple of qualifying disclaimers. First, many accountants are actually great leaders in other areas of their lives, but fail to be successful leaders in business--which is one of the major angles of this article. Second, please put aside your pre-conceived ideas of what a great leader is. People of all genders, creeds, religions, political parties, and more can be and are great business leaders, and it often isn’t the smartest person in the room or someone that has one or two very visible perceived leadership attributes. In describing the varieties of effective leadership, Neal A. Maxwell said: “Trying to describe leadership is like having several viewers trying to compare what they see in a kaleidoscope when the mere act of passing the kaleidoscope shakes up the design.”

Leadership Skill 1 - Service

“Life is like a game of tennis--those who serve well seldom lose” (C.S. Lewis). Comparing leadership to life, the same holds true--those who serve others well are very effective leaders. But many accountants fail to apply outside of their department and function. They get along well with their like-minded peers, but they clash with the marketing, sales, and operations departments regularly. Accounting and finance exist to serve the rest of the organization, but all too often they forget that and become too self-interested.

In his book The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle, James C. Hunter powerfully teaches the principles associated with servant leadership. The core of his message is that the leader exists to serve those he or she leads. And many accountants fail to take this attitude towards others around them, especially if they don’t understand debits and credits and can’t reconcile retained earnings to the prior year equity transactions.

If you are feeling a little guilty about this, that’s okay. This is fixable, and it’s about changing your perspective on everyone around you and what you are trying to help them accomplish (notice you’ve got to put your self-interest aside). It will take work and great discipline, but it can be done.

Leadership Skill 2 - Vision

In the same book, Mr. Hunter says that the first job of a leader is to set the vision, or course of direction, for the organization. Then the second and all-consuming job of the leader is to serve. But why do so many accountants lack the ability to have a business vision?

That’s a trick question. They don’t lack the ability, but they usually neglect it. And the reason is that they are usually so buried in the details of their functions that they don’t step back to look at, contemplate, understand, and embrace the bigger picture. If you are an accountant and you want to be a business leader, you have to train yourself to step out of the details and put the entire puzzle of the business together. And here’s the amazing payoff--the best business leaders I’ve seen are the ones that understand the accounting stuff but can apply it to the success of the entire organization.

Leadership Skill 3 - Communication

Yes, accountants are often accused of not being good communicators. The reason--they don’t listen well. In the famous Dilbert cartoon, the Dogbert character once said: “If yours are the only lips moving, a conversation isn’t actually occurring.” And just letting other people talk isn’t enough. It’s got to be sincere, concentrated listening. And if you ever find yourself thinking about what you’re going to say next instead of actually listening to what the other person is saying, then you might be able to improve your communication skills.

One’s ability to communicate effectively is at the core of that person’s ability to build trust. James Hunter  wrote: “Empathetic listening is one of the most effective ways to build trust.” In addition, the more accountants can listen and try to help others around them in both their verbal and non-verbal communication, the more they will build trust with others, which is essential to effective business leadership.

Leadership Skill 4 - Organization

While it is perceived that most accountants already have great organization skills, you’d be surprised how many don’t. They are often so focused on the past that they fail to think about and plan for the future. As such, they struggle to gain traction as leaders because leadership is as much about seeing the future as it is about understanding the past.

In business this can be particularly difficult since the accounting department is usually the last to hear about new strategies and changes in the business. Most accountants carry that frustration but do nothing to fix it. Become a thought-leader in your organization, serve everyone, and you’ll find you become part of those strategic discussions. Your ability to plan and organize the future will increase dramatically, making you an even more effective leader.

Leadership Skill 5 - Synergy

Why do so many accountants struggle to play well with others? Rather than always needing to be right and working feverishly to protect a reputation of perfect accounting prowess, accountants need to let down their guard and realize they will always be better in a synergistic team than left to their sole abilities.

To be effective business leaders, accountants need to work as a team and contribute to the trust of the team through their open communication. Yes, that means when you make a mistake, own up to it and don’t try to bury it or blame it on someone else. Believe it or not, your team will trust more for it.


I realize it may seem like I’m picking on accountants, but these principles really apply to everyone. I know from first-hand experience that accountants have what it takes to be great business leaders. If you’re an accountant, I hope some of the content of this article will help you in your progression to excellent business leadership!


Nancy Tso
Title: Head of Client Service
Company: SkyStem
(Head of Client Service, SkyStem) |

That's rough.

Ken Kaufman
Title: CFO
Company: Community Dental Partners
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Community Dental Partners) |


Thanks for your comment. It was intended to be a little rough to get us all to do a little soul-searching and determine what we can do proactively to be better business leaders. The point is that accountants who are reactive about developing leadership skills are cutting themselves and their career opportunities short!

Scott Lane
Title: CFO and CRO
Company: TPG Credit Management
(CFO and CRO, TPG Credit Management) |

It is true that the worst manager and organization I have worked for is "led" by former accountants.

Having said that this posting feels too unqualified and almost emotional.

So for you is there any way an accountant with good communication / leadership skills can overcome your aversion? If one was an accountant in the past but is more financial now does that dilute your aversion?

I am very curious about this as I believe (perhaps wrongly) that I am a rare accountant with leadership skills.

Ken Kaufman
Title: CFO
Company: Community Dental Partners
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Community Dental Partners) |


Thanks for your comment. I think you missed my point, which is the overall accounting profession tends to overlook or neglect most of the core skills it takes to be a business leader. Those who become great business leaders have to apply themselves, just like any one else who can rise through the ranks to business leadership. People in sales often receive training in a lot of these areas, but accountants usually don't. I think that's why an accountant who is a great business leader is usually self-made and will be very effective, even arguable more effective, than business leaders from other disciplines within an organization. Sure, I'm making some generalizations, but that is my overall of impression of who I've worked with and experiences I've had.

Albert Begin
Title: Accountant
Company: NOW Heating and Air
(Accountant, NOW Heating and Air) |

Accountants are trained as scientist. Running a business is an art.
Artist cannot succeed without business sense and accountants cannot overlook the role that passion and intuition plays in business.

Scott Lane
Title: CFO and CRO
Company: TPG Credit Management
(CFO and CRO, TPG Credit Management) |

While management skills and techniques can certainly be taught, I would argue that leadership skills are largely something that cannot. Perhaps I am being pedantic here but I think it is not a matter of training, it is more a selection bias that accountants are more scientific. That may explain the stereotype that accountants are not inherently good leaders. Ultimately every technical profession has those who are primarily scientific and those who get the "art" of business and leadership in addition to the science.

Topic Expert
Cindy Kraft
Title: CFO Coach
Company: Executive Essentials
(CFO Coach, Executive Essentials) |

I always enjoy reading your posts, Ken.

Many of my clients come from accounting backgrounds ... and all of them are CFOs or on track to become CFOs. I think intrinsic to the conversation is personal wiring. Many accountants are bean counters, very analytical, love numbers over people, prefer to work alone, and fall on the introversion side of the fence. Being an accountant is probably where they are comfortable with little or no aspiration to a leadership role.

On the other side of the equation is the left-brain/right-brained CFO who is quite skilled at numbers but is very much a people-person, probably falls on the extroversion side of the fence but could be a social introvert, and has that ability to see the big picture as well as the details. He is able to delegate those details to a strong controller and step away from the stereotype and actually lead.

To your point about communication, Ken, a few years ago I was doing a keynote and my research led me to a pretty interesting statement ... "Communication is so important, that Tatum has pushed its CFOs to get training in 'the softer skills,' including communications and negotiations."

Ken Kaufman
Title: CFO
Company: Community Dental Partners
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Community Dental Partners) |


Great point about writing and communication in general. Well said!