The Qualities of Good Leaders
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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