Taking Leadership Seriously

Journal of Financial Planning: July 2013


The recent Boston Marathon bombings provide an opportunity to reflect on what leadership means. In the aftermath of the heinous acts on April 15, Boston law enforcement personnel were lauded for their leadership in bringing a horrible situation to a close.

One of the many things that stands out about those efforts is how seamlessly different law enforcement agencies worked together, seemingly unhampered by politics or infighting. Everyone—the FBI, local and state police, suppliers of high-tech equipment, and negotiators, to name a few—focused on the goal of capturing the suspects. The public played a crucial role as well. On the day of the manhunt, businesses closed, and citizens in a large section of Boston and the surrounding suburbs followed a “shelter in place” order. Because the streets were empty, it was impossible for the culprits to blend in.

But it doesn’t require a crisis to consider your approach to leadership.

Small business owners sometimes trip into their role as leaders. They first become successful financial advisers and, along the way, assume the role of independent business owner, with its myriad leadership responsibilities. But whatever career path or business model we choose, we’re all leaders in one way or another. A key question is, do we take this responsibility seriously enough or do we tell ourselves that leadership is someone else’s job, that because we’re not at the top of the organizational chart with a fancy title, we don’t have a serious role as a leader?

Components of Leadership

In thinking about your role as a leader, it’s useful to examine it from three different angles.

What are your leadership activities? For financial advisers employed by larger organizations, leadership might involve completing the six stages of the CFP certification process. For producing advisers whose livelihoods depend on finding new clients, it likely involves rainmaking. For a business owner, the leadership responsibilities are more obvious: charting the firm’s strategic direction and goals, operating efficiently, marketing effectively, managing risk, and hiring staff to execute the plan profitably.

What is your leadership style? Many people take assessments to understand their dominant or most natural leadership style. Most assessment instruments are designed to identify an inclination to focus on relationships versus an inclination to focus on tasks in any particular situation. Someone whose leadership style is autocratic or authoritative (often called a director or delegator) focuses on tasks and getting the job done. In contrast, a facilitator, coach, counselor, or participative manager puts more energy into building relationships with people.

No one leadership style is right or wrong, good or bad. The key is to be able to practice situational leadership. This requires knowing what your dominant style is and adjusting it based on a specific situation and the knowledge, experience, and motivations of the individuals involved.

Who are you “being” as you pursue the leadership role? This less-discussed perspective centers on the leader’s value system and guiding principles. Your value system directly affects everything you do as a leader, including your business vision, the firm culture you seek, and how you decide to use your time on a daily basis.

It’s a lot easier to lead when we have time to think about our activities and the most appropriate style of leadership to pursue. Typically, however, there’s no time to contemplate the situation; in those cases, your key principles kick in, driving who you are as a leader. Following mantras such as “do the right thing” and “tell the truth” requires tapping into your sense of “being.”

Navigating the Gray Areas

Even when your values and principles are clear, though, gray areas can create conflict and lead to a failure of leadership. Let’s look at some common gray areas for advisers:

  • Everyone recognizes the importance of having great employees, but what if, even after trying to develop an okay employee, he or she is still just okay? Do you terminate an okay employee and continue searching for a great one? Often, compassion for the employee causes advisers to settle for lackluster work performance. But is that the right thing to do
  • Similar issues arise when it’s time to give an employee a performance review. Many advisers prefer to avoid conducting these reviews, especially if they need to have a conversation about mediocre performance. Often, advisers claim they’re too busy to conduct reviews when, in fact, they simply find it too challenging to tell the truth about employee performance.
  • What about the large client who behaves well with the adviser but is abusive to the firm’s staff? In such cases, advisers may feel torn between the conflicting values of monetary success and respect for their employees.
  • Or consider the business partners who are in constant conflict but shy away from having an interpersonal conversation to hash things out once and for all. Rather than rocking the boat, it may seem easier to stay silent. 

In many of these cases, we exacerbate the problem by fibbing ourselves, choosing to settle for mediocrity because it’s just too hard to consider making a big change. Too often, failure to lead ourselves can result in a lack of leadership in general.

Learning from Our Mistakes

Sometimes, the best way to learn about leadership is through assessing our past failures. Consider this story from my days in the consulting business:

I was working in a 300-person consulting firm and was assigned to help a well-known cigarette manufacturer improve its quality and efficiency. As a very health-conscious person, I found myself stuck between two value systems. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good employee and a solid team member, which meant offering the best consulting services possible to the cigarette company. On the other hand, I felt very strongly that the company’s product was detrimental to society.

What did I do? I performed as a good team member and employee, offering the client top-notch service. Teamwork and a desire to contribute to my firm prevailed over doing what I personally felt was right. Although I regret the decision to this day, it taught me a great deal about the demands of leadership.

Principles such as doing the right thing and telling the truth sound obvious and easy to follow. But, as this story demonstrates, carrying them out in real life often proves challenging. What separates good leaders from great ones is how they manage the gray areas. Being a great leader doesn’t just require having a clear set of values and principles; it requires prioritizing them, even when faced with a tough decision.

Embracing Leadership Every Day

Returning to the bombings, what would have happened if:

  • Competition or turf disputes among law enforcement agencies interfered with the investigation? 
  • Businesses didn’t shut down and the public didn’t stay inside during the manhunt? 
  • The media didn’t keep everyone aware of what was going on?
  • Social media users didn’t respond with lightning speed, offering tips for law enforcement agencies?
  • Victims of the bombings didn’t share what they saw and experienced?

Everyone took a leadership role, either formally and publically, or individually and personally.

The situation was a powerful reminder that leadership extends well beyond the CEO role at the top of the organizational chart. Every day, we have the opportunity to embrace leadership in the decisions we make. Considering the activities that define leadership, your leadership style, and your guiding values and principles are key steps to becoming a stronger leader.

Joni Youngwirth is the managing principal of practice management at Commonwealth Financial Network®, member FINRA/SIPC, a registered investment adviser, in Waltham, Massachusetts. Contact her at jyoungwirth@commonwealth.com.

Practice Management