The list of desirable character traits, attitudes, skills, and philosophies that finance professionals seek in a leader seems endless. Desired characteristics that appear on lists are frequently in conflict with one other.

It is hard to hold a leader accountable if there is not a clear, unambiguous understanding of the role. Many leaders prefer it this way: They like the freedom of action that comes from an ambiguous role. However, wouldn't it be better for all concerned to know, in advance and with clarity, what the true, real expectations are?

Here's a simple diagnostic tool that can be used to facilitate your firm's discussions of the characteristics it seeks in a leader.

The questions that follow include a series of "paired" qualities that as a good leader your finance chief might possess. In each pair, either quality may be desirable. However, the point of pairing these qualities is to ask, If there had to be a choice between the two items in the pair, which would each respondent really prefer in a leader?

Do you want your chief executive to be someone who:

• Focuses on working inside the firm or focuses on shareholders and the marketplace?

• Is good with numbers or good with people?

• Leads in accordance with a strong personal ideology of his or her own or leads through tolerance of different views, values, and approaches?

• Thinks that we need to make big strategic moves, even if they involve bigger risks, or thinks that we should make small, incremental changes?

• Has personal strategic acumen or has the ability to facilitate and let others innovate and make strategic choices?

• Has the best business qualifications or has the best character qualifications?

• Prefers to confront problems early, even if this can be disruptive, or prefers to avoid conflict until it becomes necessary to tackle it?

• Moves fast or acts deliberatively?

• Emphasizes ambition and growth or emphasizes caution and risk management?

• Emphasizes reasoning and logic or emphasizes emotion and excitement?

• Acts and manages as a peer, a first among equals, or acts and manages as a clear leader?

• Is primarily a "businessperson" or is primarily "ideology-driven"?

• Is very self-confident or is humble?

• Is a pragmatist or is a visionary?

• Primarily has a "hard head" or primarily has a "soft heart"?

• Focuses on getting things done (i.e., a "driver") or focuses on getting them done right (i.e., an "analytical")?

• Focuses on capitalizing on short-term opportunities or focuses on long-term wealth creation?

• Makes changes through dramatic, big moves or makes changes through continuous, insistent pressure?

• Sets the example of hard work or sets the example of a balanced personal/work lifestyle?

• Is diplomatic or is "straight-talking"?

• Prefers to manage people directly or prefers to work through others?

• Is decisive or is consultative?

• Is hands-on (i.e., involved in the details) or is hands-off (i.e., sets the direction and then holds people accountable)?

Naturally, it is possible to adapt this questionnaire to your own finance function, inserting pairs that we have omitted and deleting ones that you think are less critical to your company. The key is to make the choices difficult, so that people are forced to reflect on what the key, top-priority characteristics are for the right finance leader, right now.

An important educational, bonding, and strategy-setting function will be served by using the results for a discussion of the differing views. The point of this survey tool is not to suppress debate but to identify the subjects most worthy of discussion. Areas of consensus can be quickly noted and discussion focused on topics where there is a disparity of views.

This approach forces many people to reflect in depth for the first time on what kind of leader they truly think is best for finance and, perhaps more important, what kind of leader they are prepared to accept and be guided by.

After this exercise, your firm will be ready to examine your candidates and choose the right leader for where you are today and where your organization wants to go.

Now watch David Maister discuss the qualities that distinguish superior finance leaders. www.bfmag.com (Oct. 30, 2007)