Effective Leadership: It’s Not About You


Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gahndi, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln … these are just a few individuals who come to mind when asked to provide examples of leaders. While each of these individuals are known for a variety of important contributions to society, they all share something in common: the influence and ability to bring about change. As we navigate a tumultuous political climate and search for meaning in our professional lives, our thoughts tend to run toward leadership. So, what makes an effective leader?

Leadership v. Management

In the professional sense, the skill sets needed for proper management and leadership typically overlap. However, it is important to note that leadership is not the same as management. Someone can be a great manager, but a poor leader, and vice versa. We learned the difference in this great piece by Rebecca Radcliffe. Radcliffe explains that “management is a set of processes that keep an organization functioning,” whereas “leadership… is about aligning people to the vision, that means buy-in… communication, motivation, and inspiration.” In the most successful organizations, both functions are performed at a high level.

Leadership in Law Firms

Our law firm is focused on innovation and delivering only good surprises to our clients. To that end, we are always interested in learning more about leadership and management within the law firm environment. In this Harvard Business Review piece, we are told that “law firms are trying to become more ‘business-like’ but fail to adopt many of the basic talent management principles upon which excellent institutions are built.” That is to say, many law firms are aware of the need for change, but are hesitant to break away from the comfort of routine. We are cautioned that law firms won’t “thrive by continuing to do what they have always done.” A good leader is needed to help shake things up and better position an organization for growth. Another interesting article on inspiring acts of leadership confirms that while it “may not have a one-size-fits-all definition… most acts of leadership do share a common goal: inspiring change.”

Strategies and Approaches to Effective Leadership

Most law firm leaders are busy people focused on meeting the needs of their clients. However, good client service is also achieved by prioritizing leadership in and of itself. Aside from the practice of law, or the work of any business, leaders should spend time considering what drives their staff and how addressing their needs directly contributes to the bottom line of the firm. This means ensuring employees are exposed to, and entrusted with, challenging work. Beyond that, they should create a “meaningful evaluation system,” in which there is “ongoing feedback,” as opposed to “retroactive criticism of work that dates back months.” See more on this here.

Strategy #1: Servant Leadership

Some 50 years ago, Robert K. Greenleaf first discussed the idea of “servant leadership.” While the term ‘servant’ may give some pause, it is not meant to imply that leaders ought to be more passive, deferential, or “soft” on their teams. Rather, servant leaders focus on humility, empathy, and promoting an environment in which “employees know they can speak freely and be heard,” according to this clarifying piece. It has been found that servant leaders contribute to “high engagement, low turnover” as well as “build a positive reputation around brands, and that attracts top talent.” So, how is it done? According to the same piece on Entrepreneur.com, to be a servant leader, you have more informal face-time with your staff, recognize that “mistakes are part of the journey,” ease up on micromanagement, and commit to “serving everyone’s strengths.”

Strategy #2: Storytelling

One obstacle to effective leadership is approachability. As a boss, how many times have you suspected that certain employees took the long way to the restroom to avoid small-talk with you? As an employee, do you feel the need to keep your guard up at all times with your superior? Unfortunately, these scenarios are common and only hurt your business. This Huffington Post article sheds light on the experience of Sandy Coletta, President of Kent Hospital in Rhode Island. Coletta shared a story in the hospital newsletter about her pet bearded dragon’s escape from its cage, which drew in a surprisingly large response. “It really struck me that in the C-suite roles, you are distant and people are afraid to talk to you,” Coletta said. Her willingness to be open and ‘real’ is what helped her become a better leader. “Stories inspire us and catalyze us to act,” the article explains. Coletta is pleased with the attention storytelling “is getting as a business competency that drives emotional engagement and… enhanced business performance.” Something to think about next time Monday morning rolls around and one of your direct reports asks, “how was your weekend?” The idea is that, upon sharing stories with your team, you allow them to really know you, and if they know you, they are incentivized to be more accountable and work harder. It’s all about regular communication and breaking down barriers.

Strategy #3: Leaders Take Ownership

Whichever strategies leaders choose, the end goal remains to “provide inspiration… and a plan for moving forward”. Check out this article for more. The most effective leaders don’t pass the buck, are empathetic, yet firm when it comes to driving their teams to success, and are eager to learn not only from setbacks, but also from colleagues at all levels. In short, the most effective leaders know that they are not the hero or heroine of the stories they tell; those spots are reserved for the people that they lead.

For additional information, read our post and listen to our podcast on Is There Another Law Firm Business Model.

The Culture Counts blog is a discussion of law firm culture and legal innovation, including topics such as effective leadership, employee engagement, workplace culture, ideal work environment, company core values, and workplace productivity.  

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About the Firm:

Klemchuk LLP is a litigation, intellectual property, transactional, and international business law firm dedicated to protecting innovation. The firm provides tailored legal solutions to industries including software, technology, retail, real estate, consumer goods, ecommerce, telecommunications, restaurant, energy, media, and professional services. The firm focuses on serving mid-market companies seeking long-term, value-added relationships with a law firm. Learn more about experiencing law practiced differently and our local counsel practice.

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