July 15, 2021

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Thought leaders

For far too long now, it’s been a thing to be a “thought leader.” You know, a person who leads by virtue of their thoughts. Or is it someone who thinks, and therefore leads? It’s all very vague and insufferable. Let’s all just agree that it’s a trite, buzzy phrase for people who might love the sound of their own voice and frequently get up in front of their peers to tell them what they should be doing. 

Despite my feelings, what’s crucial to the thought leader is pre-thought-leader success. That’s the hardest part: starting a firm, building it into something, doing something notable or innovative or controversial, and then being willing to talk about it a lot and at length. Once someone breaks through and becomes a thought leader, all they have to do is keep being a thought leader. Presumably, they still have a firm to run, but if you are free to travel and speak a lot of the time, the firm is probably being run by someone else. 

Anyway, this Ed Mendlowitz column perfectly titled “An accountant I did not like” has an anecdote that more or less nails it:

[H]ere was this ogre sharing ways that made him successful. He started talking about how he ran his firm, what he expected of his partners and staff and also from the clients, how he set fees, the training he gave his staff (this was in the days before mandatory CPE) and many other ways he ran his practice.

I’d just like to pause here to acknowledge Ed’s use of “ogre” and voice my approval. It creates an interesting visual but also: truth. Let’s continue:

One time I asked him why he “gave away his secrets.” He said it was for selfish reasons. He figured that if he could help other firms become more successful, then that would elevate him, since he felt he was above them. He said that a better image for all accounting firms could only benefit him, and he was doing what he could to help them.

All true. The only thing missing is that a thought leader knows that 99% of their audience won’t do what they tell them they should do. There’s virtually no risk to sharing all their secrets because: a) they’re already rich and successful, and b) is anyone really going to do everything this person is doing and somehow steal all their clients and staff? People are busy or lazy or just want the CPE credit. Or they pick up on one thing they need and ignore all the rest. But mostly the CPE credit. 

It seems that the only real risk is that someone in the audience will decide that they want to be a thought leader and seize some of that thought leader spotlight for themselves. But even that’s a small risk. Although many have soured on or are skeptical of thought leaders, there seems to be an infinite demand for anyone willing to talk about their success with the side effect that maybe people learn something.

Accountants vs. Robots

In a world where robots take over accounting, what do those robots look like? For some reason, at least some accounting people default to a C-3PO-ish figure with limbs and digits and eyes and joints and such. I suppose if God created man in his own image, it makes perfect sense that man would try to follow suit. But I digress.

There is a significant drawback to the humanoid approach, however, one that has been exposed by SoftBank Group Corp.’s “Pepper”:

“Because it has the shape of a person, people expect the intelligence of a human,” said Takayuki Furuta, head of the Future Robotics Technology Center at Chiba Institute of Technology, which wasn’t involved in Pepper’s development. “The level of the technology completely falls short of that. It’s like the difference between a toy car and an actual car.”   

This makes sense. Why would our robot replacements look just like us? Shouldn’t we be terrified? Or at least intimidated?

Personally, I think it’d be kind of fun (and appropriate) if robot accountants went the Borg route. You know, a monotone hive occupying a cube, mindlessly craving power, efficiency, and perfection—but without all the “You will be assimilated” business. Just take accounting, Borg Accountant. No one’s going to resist. 

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Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.
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