Like most writers, I get inspiration from real-world events. Currently, I’ve been observing as the President of the United States refuses to concede the election to the President-Elect. While in many ways we’ve come to expect this kind of behavior from the current President, it reminded me of the importance of removing ego from leadership – in governments but also in businesses such as law firms.
Over the years I’ve worked with many law firm leaders including Managing Partners, Marketing Partners, members of Executive Committees, leaders of other committees (such as Compensation), leaders of practice groups and client teams, etc. Strong lawyers do not necessarily make strong leaders. In some ways, the skills needed to be a great lawyer work against those needed to be a great leader. To explore this, I thought I would consider this from the perspective of the Patrick Lencioni book, “The Five Temptations of a CEO” and what I’ve seen in real life law firms.
The book – a very quick read – is written as a fable in which a relatively new CEO of a Californica-based company is struggling with the role. He receives sage advice from an unexpected source: a fellow passenger on the subway. The focus of that advice is five ways in which CEOs often fail. Whether you’re a leader at your firm, may become a leader one day, are simply an observer or can apply this to your own career, see if any of these sound familiar…
1 Choosing Status Over Results: The book points out that many leaders focus more on protecting their future with the company rather than doing what’s best for the company itself. It’s suggested that ideally, a CEO slowly works themselves out of the job. That’s because each leader has certain skills – but not all of the skills – that a company might need over time. Do what you can with the talents you have, then prepare the company for hand-over to the next person who will hopefully have slightly different skills.
Great leadership isn’t about holding on forever. It’s about being able to identify the firm’s needs, your capabilities, and knowing when you’ve exhausted those capabilities and it’s in the firm’s best interest for someone else to come along. It’s about creating real results rather than focusing on justifying your continuation in the role.
2. Choosing Popularity Over Accountability: We like to be liked, and this need might cause us to avoid holding those around us fully accountable. A strong leader tells people what is expected of them, then holds them to those expectations. If they don’t meet those requirements, the leader deals with those individuals directly, professionally and with compassion. This might not make the leader loved by all, but it will make them respected. And it will ensure their focus is on accomplishing the firm’s objectives, not winning a popularity contest.
3. Choosing Certainty Over Clarity: Law firm leaders are terrified of being wrong, so they hold off on making decisions until they have absolute certainty. But there’s no such thing as absolute certainty, and often, there is an ideal time line around decisions that won’t wait for reams of data and confirmation. A leader has to be prepared to make decisions with limited information. I’ve also seen many law firm leaders proceed with an action plan without first getting real clarity about what they want to achieve. How do I know this? Countless times I’ve been told to commence with a project and when I ask the question “how will we know we’ve been successful?”, I get blank stares. It’s “ready and fire” without the “aim”. (Or perhaps, thinking that the action was the purpose, as in “our goal is to fire!” Never a good strategy).
Leaders should focus first on what they want to achieve and only then, consider how they want to achieve it. This helps to give them absolute clarity on the purpose of the task to those around them. And when you have clarity on the purpose of a project, it’s much easier to hold yourself and those around you accountable for its achievement.
A final note on this one: it’s OK to fail from time to time. Lawyers hate hearing that, but strong leadership operates at least in part on strategy which means we don’t know definitely what the right action is, but we’re taking our most calculated guess. And strategy is a foundation of good business.
4 Choosing Harmony Over Productive Conflict: Many people – but especially lawyers – don’t like conflict. I always thought this was ironic for a profession that loves a good fight. So, let me clarify…they tend not to like discord that involves them personally. This is why lawyers tend to hate doing honest reviews of associates and staff. This fear of conflict can cause them to believe that any difference of opinion = bad. Those around them feel this and it can cause them to adjust their own contributions. If those leaders get defensive, or push back on opposing perspectives, those other lawyers or staff will back off immediately and simply endorse whatever the leader has put on the table. Thus, decisions can be made with insufficient discussion and analysis.
That’s NOT what a good leader wants. Strong decisions come from understanding all perspectives, even the uncomfortable ones. You want to hear from people who cause you to consider all perspectives, to see an issue from a side you wouldn’t see on your own, to explore solutions that you might not have considered.
A leader isn’t expected to have all of the answers. They are expected to surround themselves with assistance to get to the best possible answer, and then implement well. And it might take a little productive conflict to get there.
5. Choosing Invulnerability Over Trust: I’ve written about this before: leaders can find it difficult to trust the professionals they surrounded themselves with. This can be difficult for lawyers, either because they feel they can do all of those jobs better themself, or because they want absolute autonomy over every single aspect of the business, and letting others do their job feels like they’ve relinquished that autonomy.
But as the book states: “People who trust one another aren’t worried about holding back their opinions or their passions. Getting results, holding people accountable, creating clarity for their people, engaging in productive conflict…these all depend ultimately on vulnerability and trust. CEOs must trust their employees and actively encourage them to challenge their ideas. They will return that trust with respect and honesty, and with a desire to be vulnerable among their peers.”
Lencioni doesn’t frame these temptations as being ego-driven, although he does suggest that leaders fail when they aren’t willing to seriously consider these possible temptations and then work on them. And in my mind, this lack of humility suggests an over-use of ego.
Some of that ego might come from the belief that leaders must absolutely know what they are doing all the time, and that’s just not true. Leadership is more of a journey, or an ongoing study. No one should be expected to be perfect at it because it requires skill and knowledge in the moment, and each moment is unique. Once lawyers are able to let go of this expectation of being all-knowing, it might be easier to let go of the ego required to hold up that pretense. And this will give them the humility needed to do the suggestions mentioned above.
It’s suggested in the book that leaders should come to realize that the real measure of their success isn’t the appearance of their being smart, but rather the organization’s results. In other words, it’s not about them. It’s about the job. Sure wish someone had told that to President Trump.
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org