More advice has been written about leadership than just about any other topic in the social sciences. My clients often ask me if I can distill this leadership wisdom into a very short synopsis that’s tailored to lawyers in senior leadership roles. I’ve resisted doing this because there are so many good books on leadership (although very few of them address leadership in law firms). If you want to dig into that literature, start with The Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, which in my view is the best and most well written evidence-based summary of the practical principles of how to successfully lead others. For those with less time on their hands, here is my attempt to reduce what we know to a “one-pager”.
First, let’s recall the important distinction between “management” and “leadership”—management is a system of behaviors designed to control complexity, create order and produce consistent execution of tasks and strategies that get the work done. It’s internally focused. By contrast, leadership is a system of behaviors designed to respond to change, uncertainty and unpredictability, and is externally focused. Leaders do two things—they identify a goal or direction, and they mobilize others to voluntarily go in that direction.
You can manage documents, inventory, information, systems, products, people, time, and many other assets. You can only lead people. That’s it.
In the legal profession, we’ve had complexity since the late 1970’s, and accordingly, we’ve had managers since then, including managing partners and practice group leaders (they’re really practice group managers.) But the accelerating pace of change didn’t really start to move exponentially until around the mid-1990’s, so until then, leadership wasn’t much talked about in law firms.
Since then, the dramatic increase in change, uncertainty and unpredictability has fueled the demand for leaders. In most corporations, managers manage, leaders lead, and both execute these roles as full-time jobs. In a law firm, however, most managers are practicing lawyers first and managers in their spare time. Being a manager does not necessarily mean you are a leader, and for most management roles in today’s law firms, those in management roles are not also leading. But the opposite is not true—those in leadership roles in law firms almost always wear both hats—management and leadership. And yes, most law firm leaders devote their principal efforts to practicing law, and devote a smaller amount of time to leadership efforts. But increasingly we are seeing the “all-in” leader—the lawyer who all but stops practicing law in order to devote full time attention to the task of leading. Usually this is the top role, which may go under several names—managing partner (shouldn’t we call it “leading partner”?), Chair, CEO.
There are many forces at work driving the most senior law firm leaders towards an “all-in” role—the knowledge explosion, the growth in size and scope of law firms, the increasingly complex responsibilities of leaders, the competition from other providers of legal services, the decreasing loyalty of clients (and the increasingly important role of the top leader in maintaining client loyalty and satisfaction), and, perhaps most important, the aforementioned accelerating rate of change and uncertainty.
As uncertainty increases, leaders have less and less ability to gather all the necessary information needed to make good decisions. Hence, leaders are almost always in a position of having to make decisions on the basis of insufficient information. But if you’ll recall, the two responsibilities of leadership are (1) setting a direction, and (2) getting others to voluntarily move in that direction. This second task is inherently based on trust. When a leader doesn’t have complete information, s/he must, by necessity, ask his/her constituents to “trust me—this is the right direction for us, even though I don’t have complete information.” Trust is built through relationships, and that takes time. The busier your lawyers, the more geographically spread out is your firm (or your clients), and the fuzzier the information supporting the goal, the more you as a leader need to gain the psychological buy-in of your constituents. And there’s simply no substitute for face time in this effort.
Everything I’ve said so far applies to leaders in general. But in a law firm, we have the complicating factor that lawyers are atypically high in a personality trait called “Skepticism”. This means that the process of building buy-in is harder to do and takes longer to achieve. Moreover, most lawyers are also very low in psychological “Resilience”, which means that they will be more thin-skinned and sensitive to criticism or rejection. You always have to factor this in by anticipating defensive responses from anyone whose opinion or behavior you seek to change. A simple request to “follow this new direction” can easily be interpreted by a low-Resilience lawyer as a criticism of their current direction, even if that’s not what was intended. And when you, the leader, are also low in Resilience (which is highly likely, based on the statistical distribution of this trait among lawyers, it can make your task even more challenging. Why? Because leaders get criticized more than other people do, and when a low-Resilience leader gets criticized, s/he is more likely to get defensive, wounded, hurt, or otherwise react ineffectively, and this further impedes the ability to get your constituents to buy in.
Thus, law firm leaders need to do several things to become more effective:
- Know yourself. Know your personality strengths and blind spots.
- If you’re low in Resilience, luckily there are several very effective cognitive strategies that can help you boost it to a higher level
- Understand Skepticism—your own, and how to deal with the Skepticism of your partners
In addition to these tasks, there are several other things that leaders need to pay attention to in order to become maximally effective.
The leadership literature makes it very clear that people, at a minimum, only follow leaders who consistently demonstrate character and competence.
Character includes a number of factors, but they all are related to one another, and they include trustworthiness, honesty, reliability (do you do what you say you’re going to do), authenticity, and fairness. To the extent that you are seen as deficient in any of these, you will have a harder time getting buy-in for your leadership initiatives. Note that this is entirely subjective—it matters little what you think of your character; what matters most is the subjective perception that your constituents have. This is one of the principal reasons that good leaders seek out lots of feedback and place a value on self-awareness.
Competence comes in two flavors. First, the research shows that people only like to follow leaders who are skilled at the things that their constituents value. Lawyers only follow leaders who are themselves good lawyers. A number of experiments have been tried in which very competent leaders who were not lawyers attempted to lead significant law firms. In all cases, the results were less than optimal.
Second, leaders need to also be good at certain leadership competencies. The best evidence suggests that leaders who are outstanding at three to five such competencies achieve the best followership, and those leaders who fail to achieve top performance on any of the competencies struggle to make any headway at all.
There are several models in the literature for what kinds of competencies you need to excel in. I’m going to summarize the research from Kouzes and Posner. If you want to take a deeper dive, the other evidence-based model can be found in The Extraordinary Leader by Zenger & Folkman.
Kouzes and Posner
Character and competence
Kouzes & Posner have been empirically studying leaders for over 25 years, and their database is huge as well as very consistent—it shows that there are five core “practices” (competencies) that the best leaders do very well. (The somewhat jargon-y labels come from their writing.)
Model the Way: Effective leaders set an example for others to follow. Small example—no lawyer will turn in his/her timesheets on time if the leader asking for them doesn’t do so as well. But think bigger—it’s not just about timesheets—your character is on display, and the more you walk your talk, the more others are likely to follow your lead.
Inspire a Shared Vision: Leaders create a picture of how life could be different/better if/when we achieve our goals. They go about this in a way that’s likely to evoke an emotional response from their constituents. People do not follow leaders on good ideas alone—those ideas have to resonate at a deeply personal level in order to lead to action.
Challenge the Process: Leaders take risks. They experiment. They make strategic choices with less than 100% information. And they learn from their mistakes.
Enable Others to Act: Leaders foster collaboration among their constituents. They build a climate of trust. They cement relationships. And they help remove obstacles from others who want to move towards the goal.
Encourage the Heart: Leaders liberally recognize goal-directed behaviors by their constituents. They reward them intrinsically—with respect, with genuine heartfelt praise, with recognition. They keep hope alive. They foster mutual respect for individuals, and this, in turn, fuels many of the practices above.
Some of these practices seem foreign to the DNA of most law firms. And for years, we’ve tolerated a lot of lawyers scoffing at “that touchy-feely stuff”. But in the last 20 years, there has been an explosion of compelling scientific research in both psychology and neuroscience that shows the extraordinary power of these practices in driving enterprises towards consistently superior performance and record levels of profitability, not to mention employee engagement, longer tenure, and higher job satisfaction.
I haven’t even mentioned in this article the challenges of keeping and motivating Millennials, who now constitute nearly the entirety of your associate classes, but the good news is that the same principles and practices that foster outstanding leadership also produce the kind of climate that tends to increase Millennial engagement and job tenure.
As I mentioned at the outset, there are many other principles in the leadership literature about what you can do to become skilled at leading other lawyers, but the ones I have covered here represent the 80/20 rule—if you simply focus your attention on these few ideas, you will see extraordinary results.
 See John Kotter, What Leaders Really Do (Harvard Business School, 1999)
 See my article Herding Cats at http://www.lawyerbrain.com/sites/default/files/caliper_herding_cats.pdf .
The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders by John Zenger and Joseph Folkman (McGraw Hill, 2009)
As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.
© 2016 LawyerBrain LLC – All rights reserved
As the author of this column, I receive a number of questions each month on the topic of leadership. Manu asks how young men and women in India can be taught to think about leadership. A pharmacy director in the U.S. is having difficulty firing up a small number of workers who are not engaged in their work. Linda wants tips on being more decisive. An executive leading a crossfunctional team asks: “How can I motivate them to stay committed to the team and focused on our goals when they have their day-to-day work responsibilities?”
The answers to these questions begin with the very basics. What is the definition of leadership?
In my experience, “business leadership” is often associated with a CEO of a company who made a lot of money and got rich in the process. Yet when clients tell me their company needs leadership, impressive job titles and large salaries aren’t what they’re after.
We say, “So-and-so is a born leader.” No such thing. Leadership is a relationship between a person and a group plus the skills to guide the group to success. As with any relationship, success depends on both parties. One group’s stellar leader may fail utterly when leading another group. The lack of competent leadership is the number one complaint I hear from non-CEOs.
Rather than just study leaders (thousands of books on leadership cover that ground), I’ve asked hundreds of people who they follow and why. They say leadership is emotional; it’s about inspiration, motivation, and connection. Unlike management, it doesn’t lend itself to systems, structure, and traditional classroom teaching. What inspires people to follow is surprisingly consistent, and surprisingly simple. But be forewarned: Simple doesn’t mean easy!
Establishing the leadership relationship
Call it “vision,” or “mission,” but it all boils down to one thing: First and foremost, people look to leaders for direction. Only by knowing their organization’s direction can people apply themselves to achieve their goals. It needn’t be formally stated; the leader’s actions and decisions convey the direction to the company. The direction needs to pervade every decision and conversation within the company, and it’s the leader who makes that happen. Providing direction for others is a key to creating a leadership relationship.
Even with direction, people must trust a leader. Trust is built on honesty and integrity. People want the truth from their leaders. Outrage from Watergate, the Monica Lewinsky affair, Enron, and many other public scandals were fueled less by the events than by the accused parties’ cover-ups and lies. When Salomon Brothers covered up improper trading in an early-1990s scandal, it fueled the flight of a billion-dollars’ worth of customers as people lost trust in the organization. Warren Buffett rescued the company by using complete and total candor with Wall Street and regulators as a way of restoring trust. Far from being a disaster, telling the truth proved astonishingly effective in quickly restoring the company’s integrity, with a minimum of fines.
Leaders must have integrity, establishing clear values and living those values. One of my clients worked for a newly public company whose CEO urged employees to hold their shares to keep investor confidence high. He then sold several million-dollars’ worth of his own shares. He responded to his employees’ feelings of betrayal saying, “It was just a small percentage of my holdings.” But that didn’t matter! He contradicted himself by selling shares while exhorting his employees to hold theirs. It killed his leadership.
Interestingly, the key is having actions match values, more so than what those values are. If one leader values quality and another values speed-to-market, they will simply attract different people to their organizations. But in either case, they must live their values consistently.
Consistency is another vital leadership element. When a leader changes direction with the market fad-of-the-day, or when his or her values shift according to the latest public opinion polls, people stop following. People want dependable leaders who provide a touchstone in times of change. You may ask: In a world of constant change, don’t we need to shift and adapt? Of course. But you must choose a direction and values that stay stable even while adapting your tactics.
A software company once had a company vision, “We will produce the best ABC widget for DOS the world has every seen.” It was a great vision statement, until Windows squashed the company out of existence. The software maker’s vision was so narrow it couldn’t adapt to change. A mission of, “We will solve the ABC problem for computers worldwide” would have been flexible enough to keep the vision while adapting to technological evolution.
Lastly, followers need to feel connected to their leaders. Leaders almost always connect through shared values; that’s one reason followers leave when a leader doesn’t live his or her values. Helping people feel they are part of something much greater—giving them a personal vision—is another strong tactic. For instance a leader in the healthcare industry may say, “You’re not just joining our company, you’re becoming part of transforming the world of healthcare.” Recognizing and rewarding employee achievement helps cement the connection. On the other hand, taking credit for others’ work is a powerful connection destroyer.
I was surprised by this framework’s simplicity—direction, integrity, consistency, and connection. But its simplicity hides how difficult it is to pull off. It’s difficult because these qualities can’t be faked for long. Creating a direction is easy. Integrating it into every breath and decision is not. Choosing values is easy. Aligning behavior, decision making, policies, and organization around those values is not. Consistency is easy … until things don’t go quite as planned. And connection is easy until things get busy and instinct tells us to stop all this fluffy foolishness and just get down to work.
Building the organization
Direction, integrity, consistency, and connection create the leadership relationship. That’s a first step in building an organization, but it doesn’t address the issue of how leaders make their organizations successful. History is littered with great leaders who didn’t have a clue how to turn their leadership into an enduring business. Let me share some of the highlights:
- Focus, focus, focus. Know what the organization should be doing and ruthlessly say “no” to anything that would be a distraction.
- Play to individual strengths. Understand the abilities of everyone you hire and make sure their job plays to their strengths. Don’t spend too much time developing weak areas. If someone can go from good-to-great in their strength, that’s more valuable to the organization than taking someone from poor-to-acceptable. Build organizational competence by teaming up complementary skill sets. Ditto for yourself; know what you’re good at and can do well, and spend most of your time doing that.
- Play to organizational strengths. Stick to what you’re good at as a company, and get very good at it. If you’re a great software company, opening a chain of high-end fashion clothing stores won’t build a strong organization.
- You can train people for skills, but it’s much harder to hire attitude. Most companies hire for specific job history or resume keywords, which is precisely the wrong way to go about it.
- Bring out the best in your people. Hire the best, give them a common direction, and let them do their job. You’ll have a much stronger organization than if you make yourself too important. Remember: Every time you hire someone who isn’t as smart as you, you lower the average IQ of the company.
My favorite books on building organizations are Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by Jim Collins (it also touches on the “Level 5” leadership character qualities that correlate with success), The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization by Peter Senge, with Bryan Smigh, Charlotte Roberts, Richard B. Ross, and First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. All are research-based, easy to read, and have enough great material to keep you building organizations well into the next century.
Most of this column has concentrated on the “soft” skills. When it comes to leadership, I remember what the COO of a multibillion-dollar company once told me: “At the end of the day the financial and strategic issues are there but they are reducible largely by analytics…the people and process issues are not.” If your goal is to become a successful business leader, your route will be smoother if you spend some time working on relationship skills and “softer” aspects of leading. Because at its heart, leadership is nothing more and nothing less than inspiring others to follow your dream and doing what it takes to make possible their success.