A perspective on leadership: part two

Leadership by people in charge of others

Anthony Inglese on 25/02/19

In part one of this article I dealt with my belief that everyone in an in-house legal organisation is a leader and should attend to developing their leadership qualities for the good.

There are also more specific aspects of leadership which a person in charge of an in-house legal organisation has to perform.  The first of these will be to identify for themselves their personal values and to find effective ways of transmitting the most relevant values to the group.  A value might, for example, be to treat everyone with respect. The leader will live that value to the best of their ability in all their interactions every day, when the pressure is on as well as when it’s off.  If done well, it sets the tone for the life of the group.  The leader will acknowledge people, take an interest in them, listen to them, demonstrate that they are being listened to, consult them where appropriate, not be late for meetings, not open up a mobile phone in meetings with others, not make people stay late on duty because we have left our own work to the last minute, not run people down in conversations with others.  How well are we doing?

Any leader will be focused on achieving results in the job.  This can’t be done alone.  Hence the importance for the leader in selecting and developing the leader’s top team. A good top team will bring a diversity of character and ability, almost certainly more than the leader alone, and will be a powerful force in helping the leader identify what needs to be done and in getting it done. The leader will need to ensure that time is spent in team development, raising team members’ awareness of each other’s skills and how best to draw upon each other to achieve results. The top team works “with” the leader, not “for” the leader.

The leader will take the lead in setting strategy for the group. It can be tempting to let oneself be distracted from planning for the longer term by short term work pressures but the leader will resist the temptation and insist on asking where are we now, where do we need to be in, say, 3-5 years’ time and how are we going to get there? This in turn leads to the creation of a strategic business plan and to the monitoring and evaluation of progress under the plan.  Not every leader is a great strategist or business-planner or monitor, but help is at hand because the leader will be able to draw on the strengths and skills of all those around, in particular the members of the top team.  

Also on the strategic front the leader will form close working alliances with key people across and outside the organisation and will encourage their people to do the same to create an outward-looking legal function, learning from and influencing others.

In a legal organisation there is so much to focus on, including understanding the organisation and the needs of the internal clients, forging close relations of trust with senior clients, developing the members of the legal group, running to budget – and the leader will maintain the focus on those things – but the principal thing on which the leader will focus is what is often called the “real work”, ie the legal work of the group. Is it being done to the desired quality standard and are the clients appropriately satisfied?  Are any problems that arise being dealt with swiftly and effectively? Are lessons being learned? Is the giving of unpopular advice being appropriately supported? Is success being credited and celebrated?  

Amongst other activities will be a relentless focus on recruiting only high quality people to the group, welcoming and inducting new recruits to the group and developing everyone in the group so that the group grows in strength from year to year. A leader’s commitment to development will include mentoring people within and outside the organisation.

Organisational change is constant. Another important leadership activity is leading people through change, for example in ways of delivering the legal service, and the good news is that like the other leadership activities it can be learned. One significant piece of learning for leaders is that they tend to go through the change process ahead of most of their people, and they need to remember that it might not be effective to announce to their people that “the future is exciting” when the people themselves are still passing through the denial/anger stages of a change that appears at first sight brutal. A positive piece of learning is that the leader needs to role-model the desired state that the change process is leading to: “be the change you want to see”.

Leaders communicate values, ideas and information to their people.  They develop their awareness of the needs of others to receive communication – some preferring to receive important messages orally, some in writing – and they use methods appropriate to the situation. Their communications will be closely studied by their people, not just for what is said or written, how it’s said, but also for what’s not said.  Body language when engaged in oral communication is also important. Board members are often advised not to come out of a difficult meeting looking grim, because bad news will spread round the organisation more rapidly than they might imagine.  Leaders will seek regular feedback from others on their communications and on how they are coming across.

Communications often go two ways.  The leader will know when to consult rather than tell, and will ensure that consultation is a genuine listening exercise.  This goes for exchanges big and small with others.  When we ask a question we need to listen to the answer and follow it up where appropriate.

Every day the leader is making decisions, on their own or on the advice of others, on issues that are big or small, immediate or long term. Some decisions will be popular, some not; some will have wonderful consequences for individuals and the legal group, some unpleasant. The leader can’t shirk the tough decisions; and the personal impact of those decisions on the leader can last for a considerable period of time. It is rare that the leader will have all of the facts before deciding: decisions are commonly made on a risk basis. The leader will be willing to work on this basis, knowing when to push for more information and when to go ahead.

Underpinning all the above is that the leader has the desire to do all these things, to bear the responsibility when so many people are relying on the leader’s judgement and to bear it when the going gets really tough as it sometimes does, without any way of viewing every bad situation as an “opportunity”. Someone who shirks responsibility will not provide the leadership that any group of people needs. But someone who feels that they lack confidence can strengthen their leadership qualities by drawing on help from people around them - advisers, mentors or coaches. 

The pressures on leaders can also mean that leaders need to keep a close eye on their personal resilience – their ability to spring back after a sustained period of crisis or after having experiences a series of setbacks. And those pressures can be increased by a related role of the leader, namely acting as an umbrella or shock absorber to protect the rest of the team in a crisis, when blame is often flying around. Different people have different ways of fostering their resilience, and thoughtful leaders will raise their self awareness of what works for them before it’s needed. On the last occasion when my resilience was tested I was fortunate to receive personal help and support from other leaders who appreciated what I needed, and I knew that this was something I should be ready to offer to others.

A final thought: everyone has leadership ability in them, and everyone can improve their leadership by drawing on help from people around them.  It’s up to you.

Part one of this viewpoint can be found here.
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