It is different for every company and each leader, but for all the differences, the key is the person at the top.

Let’s start with the person above to whom one is accountable. This person can have a significant impact on how challenging it is to accomplish your own goals as a leader. Seek leadership roles where those above you are interested in helping facilitate your success to make changes or innovate in your current role. As a woman leader, I had experiences reporting to both men and women leaders above me. The most productive, inspirational and pleasant situations were those where I felt that gender was not an issue. I was lucky to have the “gender not an issue” under both men and women leaders. What this means is quite hard to explain, but I trust that those who read this will know exactly what I mean. When gender is an issue, one can feel it. One has to spend additional time to overcome a gender issue, time could have been better spent on the current tasks at hand. Thus, in starting any new leadership position, go into that situation with as clear of an understanding as possible of those to whom you will be reporting. Assess in your own mind whether you will be able to be successful under them.

Now to the issue of serving as a leader. In all my positions, except one, I was put into the role of a leader without much discussion of what it meant to be leader. I assumed those roles and was successful, but I was so busy that I didn’t stop and give my role as a leader a mindful perspective. I was offered little training related to being an effective leader and didn’t really seek it out. It wasn’t until I assumed the position of dean of the College of Business Administration at California State University, San Marcos (CSUSM) that I was formally introduced to the concept of servant leadership, as well as the concept of identifying and embracing a culture of leadership at that university.

Servant leadership was discussed in the Winter 2021 issue of this magazine in an article titled “Servant Leadership in Action.” If you haven’t read that article, I would highly encourage you to do so. Even though I was unfamiliar with the servant leadership nomenclature at that time, I always aspired to help others succeed and found that when I accomplished that, the overall impact on the organization was much more positive.

Each organization may also have its own culture of leadership. President Karen Haynes at CSUSM highlighted this for me in my position as dean of the College of Business Administration.

She, with input from others, developed a document titled “The Culture of Leadership at CSUSM: Understanding It, Living It, and Advancing It in a Leadership Role.” She is included as co-author of this article because the aspects of this document are from her vision to consider climate and culture as important aspects of any discussion on leadership. This document articulated various subcultures: respect, advocacy, communication and collegiality.

The two subcultures of leadership that were most defining to me were the subculture of respect and the subculture of communication.


The subculture of respect includes:

Assume Good Intent

When working with others, there are many challenging decisions that must be made and often many emotions flaring. However, if we can all confront the decision under the assumption we are all approaching the situation with good intent and working on the premise of trust, we can have more collegial discussions and decisions that are easier to reach or at least understand and accept.

Ensure Confidentiality

It is extremely important for a leader to maintain confidentiality. Someone once advised me that there is no such thing as an “off-the-record discussion.” I totally agree and certainly learned this the hard way.

Agree to Disagree

People are obviously going to have different approaches and different opinions on almost every issue. As a leader, one should invite those differences, listen and agree to disagree. However, try to approach this with respect and, once again, assume good intent.

Work with a Spirit of Collaboration

If you’re a leader of any company, you have to trust the people around you to do their jobs. You can’t go it alone. I’ve also seen the importance of making sure you get diverse perspectives so you can make the most informed decisions.

Although it may seem easiest to make decisions in isolation, looping others into the process will serve one well. It will provide different perspectives, allow others to be heard and avoid having to do this after the fact.

Work to Resolve Issues at the Peer Level First

If there is a chain of command in the organization, before starting up the chain to resolve a controversial issue, first try to resolve it at the peer level. To successfully accomplish this, one often needs to bring in all the previous items listed from a subculture of respect — assume good intent, ensure confidentiality, agree to disagree and work with a spirit of collaboration.

Practice Meeting Etiquette

How often have you attended a meeting where everyone arrived on time, was thoroughly prepared for the meeting, was ready to participate and gave their full attention to the topic at hand? If this etiquette were followed by everyone, meetings could potentially be much more pleasant and efficient.


The subculture of communication includes:

Email Well

Because it may be challenging to communicate the desired emotion with email, sometimes it is best to have a conversation. Pick up the phone and call someone, or schedule a face-to-face conversation.

Provide Front-End Communication

When there may be sensitive issues to discuss or resolve, give people information before the topic is presented or decided. Also, make the information available to all people in the same form and at the same level so that everyone is treated equitably.

Close Communication Loops

When issues have been discussed and/or presented, make the decision, and close the communication loop. Be as transparent and timely as possible.

Communicate with Purpose

Provide clarity regarding what information needs to be communicated to others, what requires formal approval and what is advisory.

In summary, many of us have the opportunity to lead in some fashion during our personal and/or professional career. Within that environment, take time to consider what culture you want to create, live in and advance. This will help you lead with a mindful perspective.

Sharon Lightner Ph.d.
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Dr. Lightner is faculty emerita at San Diego State University (SDSU). She earned a Ph.D. in Accounting from the University of Oregon, a M.S. in Accounting from SDSU and a B.S. in Accounting from the University of Montana. She served as Director of the Charles W. Lamden School of Accountancy at SDSU, Dean of the College of Business Administration at CSU San Marcos, and Accounting Department Chair at National University.

Karen S. Haynes Ph.d. CSU
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Dr. Haynes has 34 years as a university administrator which includes her 24 years as a university president serving at California State University San Marcos (2004- 2019) and the University of Houston-Victoria (1995-2004). Previously she served as Dean, The Graduate School of Social Work, University of Houston for 10 years. She is viewed as an innovator focused on future workforce needs while serving students in the present.