Developing your leadership qualities

Leadership exists in many different forms and different leaders have different styles. Here, we look at what it takes to develop your leadership qualities and boost your career prospects.

You’re unlikely to be given a leadership role unless you’ve shown that you have leadership qualities in your current role. This article sets out how to demonstrate your leadership potential whatever your current role.

What is leadership?

Leadership can be defined as our ability, through our character and behaviours, to influence the emotions, thoughts and behaviours of other people - and then lead those people on to action. Leadership can be strong or weak, good or bad. Typically, it’s usually a mixture of all these things. Good leaders don’t necessarily get everything right and bad leaders don’t normally get everything wrong.

Leadership has the greatest impact when it stems from authentic behaviour. When we’re true to ourselves, our leadership behaviours are more powerful than when people spot, or suspect, a phoney.

There’s more than one type of leader. However, whether they’re a seemingly natural “Charismatic Leader”, a “Field Marshal”, a “Healer”, a “Champion”, “Servant Leader” or one of the many other types, none start or end up as the finished article. The best leaders train and develop themselves in leadership and make a point of learning from others.

Leadership in every seat

Leadership is not the sole preserve of people in charge of others. Anyone can step up and show good leadership by supporting and lifting their colleagues. We can call this “leadership in every seat”. Indeed, if you don’t step up, you’re unlikely to be given management responsibilities. So, don’t say, “I’ll do the leadership thing when I get to the top.” Instead, find ways to show leadership now, for example:

  • Sharing legal knowledge;
  • Taking on essential tasks for the team;
  • Organising training events;
  • Helping with the induction of new colleagues;
  • Buddying trainees;
  • Supporting colleagues in difficult times;
  • Taking on more work to ease the pressure on others;
  • Helping organise a party to celebrate a success; and
  • Representing your organisation on external forums.

Similarly, keeping your head down to avoid letting people assess your leadership abilities is, in itself, poor leadership. So too is avoiding leadership by becoming a cynic. Cynical behaviour can win short term popularity, but in the long run cynics only drag themselves down and parade their impotence.

Think too about your relationships with internal clients. Let’s say a client needs legal advice from you but is reluctant to ask for it. The cynic may say, “They know where to find me – on their heads be it when it all goes wrong.” The leader, however, would risk unpopularity in the short term by giving the advice, even if it’s unwelcome. The same applies if you’ve given advice to a client who then says they won’t follow it. Are you, as a leader, happy to leave it at that?

Developing ourselves as leaders

One way to develop our leadership style is to observe what works for others, reflect on it and practise it ourselves.

Another is to try out our own ideas, see how they work and ask for feedback on them from others. Taking things a step further, we could take on a championing role, either departmentally or organisation-wide. This could be for a specific project or by acting as a change agent in a process taking the organisation in a new direction or towards a different way of working. These roles will call on us to use both our head and our heart as they present big challenges. But the rewards are there if we do them well.

Training ourselves in leadership involves self-awareness. With the help of our colleagues, coaches and mentors, we can learn how to play to our strengths and address our weaknesses. However, we must seek honest feedback on how we come across to others - and act on it.

A typical leadership challenge arises when managing teams comprising of extroverts and introverts.

In a group discussion the extroverts will do more than their share of talking, introverts less. Extroverts tend to process their ideas by talking, introverts tend to think them through before sharing them. During meetings extroverts ask themselves whether they’re sufficiently encouraging of contributions from introverts. Introverts ask themselves whether they contribute enough. Extroverts may be perceived by introverts as all talk no action and introverts by extroverts as uncommitted, not pulling their weight.

As the leader of this group, you’ll need to assess the balance between extroverts and introverts and ensure everyone’s input is heard and considered. Some people are uncomfortable speaking in groups and prefer quieter, but no less effective, ways to get their messages across.

Leadership by people in charge of others

As the leader of an in-house legal department, you’ll need to identify your personal values and communicate them to your team. If, for example, treating everyone with respect is a core value, live that value to the best of your ability in all your interactions, however much pressure you’re under. Ways to show respect include taking an interest in people, consulting them, being punctual for meetings, not making people stay late because you’ve left your own work to the last minute… the list is endless.

The respect you show will set the tone for the life of the group.

You won’t achieve your departmental targets alone, so it’s important to select and develop a top team. The best top teams are diverse in their characters and capabilities and almost certainly have more than one leader. Spend time on team development, raise every members’ awareness of each other’s skills and discuss how you can get the best out of everyone.

Setting strategy

When setting strategy, take a step back from the short term work pressures and ask yourself and your team, “Where are we now”, “Where do we need to be in, say, three to five years’ time” and “How are we going to get there?” This is the first step in the creation of a strategic business plan and the monitoring and evaluation process that underpins it. If you’re a natural strategist or business-planner, don’t worry. The good leader knows how to draw on the strengths and skills of others, especially the members of their top team.

Beyond your own team, build alliances with key people across and outside your organisation and encourage your team to do the same. This will help you create an outward-looking legal function that simultaneously learns from and influences others.

Managing the day-to-day

All that said, never lose sight of the actual work being done in your department. Is it of the required standard and are the clients satisfied? Are problems being dealt with effectively? Are lessons being learned? Are people who give unpopular advice properly supported? Is success being credited and celebrated?

Recruiting and developing quality people

Have a plan for recruiting and inducting quality people to your group. Commit too, to developing and mentoring people both inside and outside your group – or even organisation.

Leading through change

The ability to manage people through change is another important leadership quality. As a leader, you’ll probably go through any change process ahead of most of your team, so avoid announcing to them that the future is exciting when they’re still in the denial/anger stages of a process that appears, at first sight, brutal. Instead, aim to role-model the desired state that the change process is leading to.


Develop your awareness of how others respond best to communication. Some people prefer to receive important messages orally, others in writing. Remember, your communications will be closely studied, not just for what you say, also for how you say and what you don’t say. Body language is also important. Board members are often advised not to leave a difficult meeting looking grim because bad rumours will spread round the organisation in no time. Again, seek regular feedback from others on how your communication style comes across.

Of course, communication works all ways. The leader knows when to consult rather than tell and makes every consultation a genuine listening exercise.

Making decisions

You’ll make decisions every day. Some of these you’ll make alone, others with the benefit of advice from others. Some will have short term effects, others will have longer term repercussions – for individuals as well as the organisation. Some will be popular, others not so. Whatever’s at stake, you can’t shirk the responsibility to make tough decisions. Furthermore, you’ll rarely have all the facts at hand when you need to make a decision, so you’ll need to decide on the basis of risk. Knowing when to seek more information and when to make a decision and act on it is a key leadership quality.

Wanting to be a leader

As well as all the leadership qualities set out above, you’ll need to really want a leadership role. When the going gets tough, people will look to you to pull them through. They’ll be relying on your judgement and experience.

This means you’ll need deep reserves of personal resilienceand the ability to spring back after a sustained period of crisis or a series of setbacks. These pressures can be intensified if, in your leadership role, you’ve also acted as an umbrella or shock absorber to protect the rest of your team throughout a crisis. 


It’s never too early to demonstrate your leadership potential. Be proactive in developing your leadership qualities and style. Think hard about how you’ll manage people, make key decisions, communicate, build alliances, lead through organisational change, recruit into your team, set strategy and deliver on your department’s offer promises. Most of all, convince yourself that you really want a leadership role as, when things get tough, all eyes will be on you.