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The Qualities of Good Leaders


Sheila Fraser, FCPA, FCA

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Personal values

When I think of leadership, I begin by reflecting on a time when I was, quite literally, in the pasture. I ponder how those values and leadership qualities I learned as a child have influenced my work values.

I grew up on a dairy farm in a small village in Québec called Dundee-Population: 400. Our family had run this farm since 1820, and values got passed down like old clothes.

One of those values was: Do your best.

I am the eldest of six children, including five girls. We were all expected to help out on the farm. We drove tractors. We stacked 60-pound bales of hay. We fed the cattle and chickens and brought the cows in from the fields for milking.

When I think back on those times, I realize that my father was a leader.

He did not assign jobs, and then sit back on the porch with his feet up. Instead, he led by example, working harder than all of us put together. He showed us that even if we could not control everything-like the weather-we could always do the best we could with what we had.

More than that, he pushed us to constantly question what "doing our best" really meant.

Like any good manager, my father knew how to get the best out of his people. Under his influence, we pushed past our own self-imposed limitations; we developed initiative; and we learned to take sensible risks.

As my father liked to say, "a job worth doing is worth doing well." But, like it or not, mistakes and inefficiencies will happen. Whether it's someone being late milking the cows or a government program being late delivering the goods, what's important is owning up to what went wrong and committing to fix it.

My mother had her own favourite sayings, one of which was: "Treat others the way you want to be treated." From her, we learned the ethics of reciprocity or, as it was known in our house, the Golden Rule.

Both of my parents were wonderful role models, but when I look back, I realize my mother was ahead of her time. She was determined that her daughters would all get an education. She wanted us to learn a skill, so we would be independent. She taught her farm daughters (and her son) that they could do anything they put their minds to.

She was right. Of her six children-three are chartered accountants, two are doctors, and one is a lawyer. My brother and his wife, by the way, still operate the family farm.

Doing one's best and treating others fairly and with respect are the values that I've carried with me throughout my career. Frankly, I think they are qualities that would stand any leader in good stead.
In short, it's all about doing one's best and acting in good faith in order to build trust and integrity. That's what counts, and that's what should be encouraged.

Trust and ethics within organizations

A few thoughts about the nature of trust and integrity: How they relate to the notion of doing one's best, and how organizations try to encourage leadership in these areas.

Trust and integrity are essential for the success of any organization, public or private.

What builds trust? Telling the truth, delivering on commitments, and being open and transparent are all vital and are the foundations of ethical behaviour.

It's often neither the mistake nor the lapse in judgment that erodes trust. It's the failure to admit the problem, to take responsibility for it, and to fix it.

Integrity builds trust. It attracts the best and brightest, ensures employee motivation, and reduces turnover. How can we expect people to give their best if they are not respected, or if their senior management is engaged in unethical behaviour?

Accountability and transparency matter as never before, in both the private and public sectors. People want greater scrutiny and more vigilant oversight of institutions. Whether people are shareholders or taxpayers, they want systems in place to protect their interests.

And with good reason . . .

When governance falls short in the private sector, investors lose confidence and faith in corporate officers and start to park their capital elsewhere. That's not good for the economy.
When governance falls short in the public sector, taxpayers' dollars can be wasted. The health and safety of Canadians can be put at risk. Our natural environment and even our national security can be threatened.

Needless to say, these failures of governance can seriously erode the public's trust in government. That's not good for our democratic system.

In a democracy, the government only governs with the consent of the governed. If the erosion of confidence and trust in government and its institutions starts to result in a withdrawal of that consent, our ability to govern ourselves may also be eroded.

Once trust in the government is lost, people often feel angry and betrayed. Often they want more controls on government spending and management.

I'm not sure that this is the best approach.

I'm not opposed to controls, per se. After all, when I was Auditor General, I did report to Parliament on whether policies and programs were implemented with economy, efficiency, and effectiveness. As part of that mandate, I wanted to see that an organization had effective controls on its activities. Good controls that are employed well are vital to accountability, prudent management, and the protection of the public interest.

However, I also recognize that too many unnecessary controls can undermine innovation. They can lead to inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and frustration.

Frankly, when rules are broken, the solution is not to create more rules. Rather, it is to make sure the rules supporting good stewardship of public funds are applied consistently.

Thankfully, the instances of unethical behaviour in the public service remain the exception and not the rule. I believe that Canada's public institutions remain fundamentally sound. And the federal government has taken a number of steps to keep it that way, including adding whistle-blowing provisions in the Federal Accountability Act and making the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner an Officer of Parliament.

Maintaining credibility

So far, I've spoken about the importance of doing one's best and owning up to one's mistakes. But what about the Golden Rule I mentioned? It's important in a work environment to treat others the way we want to be treated and vice versa. For me, this is a critical leadership quality.

If you're going to ask tough questions, you have to expect tough questions in return. In other words, you have to "walk the talk." Otherwise, faith in your integrity would rightly be lost.

That is why it is so important to maintain your credibility.

First… adhere closely to professional standards established by professional bodies that also provide a yardstick for measuring the quality of your work.

Second… hire people with the right skills and competencies.

Third… constantly seek to improve your work through essential internal and external practice reviews.

Internal practice reviews ensure that quality management systems, policies, and professional standards are in place. They enable your team to learn from experience, develop self-assessment checklists and improve the quality of their work.

In addition to internal reviews and self-assessments, invite external reviews of your work. I understand that all these reviews may seem burdensome, maybe even excessive. However, they are necessary steps to maintain your credibility, and ultimately, to ensure the continued quality of your work.

Leadership in action

Treating others the way we want to be treated. Doing your best, and then setting the bar ever higher-leading by example. These are the leadership qualities I have tried to instill.

And, I like to think that the way you handle yourself sends a message as well. Be ready to accept accolades for a job well done, but be equally ready to assume responsibility for any shortcomings. That's what leaders do. 


These are indeed challenging times for leaders, especially financial managers in the public service. But that goes with the territory.

Anyone can lead during the good times. True leadership only emerges when the going gets tough.
More than 30 years ago, an Auditor General said he was deeply concerned about the government's management of the public purse. Today, the stakes are higher than ever.

As I look back, the government has made progress to strengthen its financial management by introducing accrual accounting, building the capacity of senior financial officers, strengthening internal audit, designating deputy heads as accounting officers, and deciding to recruit external members for audit committees and to require that large departments prepare audited financial statements. However, there is always more to do, and everyone can play a leadership role in raising the bar on financial management in the federal public service.

Modified from PD Week 2009's Keynote Address by Sheila Fraser, Auditor General of Canada.


SF For WebAbout the Author
Sheila Fraser, FCPA, FCA, is a member of the Board of Directors of Manulife Financial Corporation, Bombardier Inc., Canadians for a New Partnership, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)-Experimental Lakes Inc., and the Ottawa Food Bank. She is also a trustee (Vice-Chair) of the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation and Chair of the Audit Advisory Committee of the United Nations Development Programme.

Ms. Fraser served as Auditor General of Canada from 2001 to 2011, the first female to hold this position. Born in Dundee, Quebec. Ms. Fraser is a Chartered Accountant and earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree from McGill University. Before joining the Office of the Auditor General as Deputy Auditor General in 1999, Ms. Fraser was a partner at Ernst & Young LLP for 18 years, where she became a partner in 1981.

For her noteworthy service to the auditing and accounting professions, Ms. Fraser was awarded the designation "Fellow" by the Ordre des comptables agréés du Québec and by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario. She was a 2009 recipient of the ICAO Award of Outstanding Merit, the highest honour that the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario can bestow upon its members. In 2010, Ms. Fraser was the recipient of the Financial Management Institute Award (Honorary Life Member) for her outstanding leadership and notable contributions to financial management in government demonstrated during her illustrious career.