A perspective on leadership: part one

This is my perspective on leadership in an in-house legal group.

Anthony Inglese on 18/02/19

It’s largely based on my experience of assessing the leadership qualities of people for management positions in legal organisations; of managing and mentoring lawyers at all levels; and of making legal groups tick.  It’s divided into two parts.  This part deals with my belief that everyone is a leader, in the sense that they daily offer an example to those around them. It is also my answer to the question often put by people aspiring to management positions:  “How can I show that I have the necessary leadership qualities if I am not currently in a leadership role?”  Part Two will go on to cover the more specific aspects of leadership which a person in charge of an in-house legal organisation has to perform.

What do I mean by leadership?

What for me is the leadership that I am writing about here? It is the aspect of a person’s character and behaviour that (a) influences the emotions, thoughts and behaviours of others, who could be described as “followers”, and (b) leads those followers on to action.  Viewed in this way, everyone is a leader. In an organisation all people exhibit their leadership countless times every day, in big and small ways, to groups of colleagues and to individuals. The leadership offered by someone can be strong or weak, good or bad, and is usually a mixture of these things: good leaders will not necessarily get everything right, and bad leaders don’t normally get everything wrong. 

Leadership has greater impact if it stems from authentic behaviour, being true to oneself. Leadership behaviours are much more powerful when genuine, and anyway people are quick to spot a phoney. There are different ways of leading.  It falls to few people to be regarded as what are called “Charismatic Leaders”, much loved of the media; even they will have their learning points and in many organisations they won’t be what’s needed. Theirs is but one style of leadership. Others include the so-called “Field Marshal” style, the “Healer”, the “Champion”, the “Servant Leader”. There are many more. People can train and develop themselves in leadership, learning from others: no one starts as the finished article. Indeed no one finishes as the finished article, and anyone writing about leadership must bear this in mind and avoid making out that there is only one way of being a great leader, ie their way.

Leadership in every seat

It is easy just to think of leadership as the thing that needs to be done by a person in charge of others, but no organisation works well unless everyone steps up and shows good leadership, supporting and lifting their colleagues, what I am here calling “leadership in every seat”. Indeed, someone who doesn’t step up is unlikely to be entrusted with management responsibilities as their career develops. You can’t say, “I’ll do the leadership thing when I get to the top” because you won’t get there if you don’t do it now.  And you can’t avoid letting people reach conclusions about your leadership abilities by adopting a policy of “keeping my head down”, because that in itself is poor leadership. Nor can you contract out of leadership by becoming the team cynic. Cynical behaviour can attract moments of popularity, but in the long run cynics drag themselves down and parade their impotence.

There are so many different ways of showing leadership in a team including sharing legal knowledge with others, taking on essential tasks for the team, organising training events, helping with the induction of new team members, buddying trainees, providing a supportive ear to colleagues in times of pressure, taking on more work to ease the pressure on others, helping organise a party to celebrate a success. 

Another set of leadership examples relate to working with internal clients of the legal team: you know a client needs legal advice from you on an important project but is resistant to seeking it.  Do you say to yourself “they know where to find me – on their heads be it when it all goes wrong” or do you risk making yourself unpopular by giving the unwelcome advice? Or you have given advice to a client who then says they won’t follow it.  Do you leave it at that?  Your client asks you a question that you know needs unpicking and exploring before you can give an answer that helps the business. Do you do this or do you simply answer the question? Other ways of showing leadership might include offering clients education on relevant legal issues; representing the organisation in external forums. 

So, how do we train and develop ourselves in leadership? Depending on our personal learning styles, we can observe what works for others, for example the things mentioned in the two previous paragraphs, reflect on it and practice it ourselves; we can try our own ideas, ones that no one else is doing, see how they work for us and ask for feedback on them from others. More dramatic ways of enhancing our leadership abilities might include taking on a championing role in our legal group or across the whole organisation, for example for a project or a diversity strand, or acting as a change agent in a change process that our group or organisation is going through, for example a move towards a different way of working. These roles – champion and change agent – require the use of head and heart and provide big challenges for people performing them but long-term rewards for those who do them well.

Training ourselves in leadership will involve building our self awareness with the help of the people around us and of coaches and mentors, learning how to play to our strengths and address our weaknesses, seeking honest feedback on how we come across to others and show we have taken it to heart. This does not have to mean that leaders expose themselves to being beaten up daily by being told that everything they are doing is wrong all of the time. Many leaders don’t actually know enough about all the good things they are seen to be doing; for them the feedback is mostly affirming and goes on to show constructively some areas for improvement on which the individual can work, with help where needed. 

Here is a simplified, everyday example of the importance of self awareness and awareness of others: In a group discussion extroverts do proportionately more than their share of talking, introverts less. Extroverts tend to process their ideas by talking, introverts tend to think them through inside their heads before being ready to share them. During meetings extroverts have to ask themselves whether they are sufficiently encouraging of contributions from introverts. Introverts have to ask themselves whether they contribute enough or are content to sit back and let others make all the running.  Extroverts may be perceived by introverts as “all talk no action” or “all over the place” and introverts by extroverts as “opting out, uncommitted, not pulling their weight”. This is but one aspect of any meeting of which the meeting chair will need to be aware so that a richer discussion can result. It is true, too, that some people are less comfortable making their impact for the good in working groups, and prefer quieter but no less effective ways, so leaders have to ensure that not everything they do within their organisations rules out people who prefer other ways of making their contribution.

Part two deals with leadership by people in charge of others and can be found here.

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