I am Spartacus! - Leadership throughout your career

At the end of the seminal 1960s film Spartacus, the group of rebel slaves, rather than surrender their leader Spartacus to the Roman general Crassus, all decide to declare that “I am Spartacus.”

Catherine McGregor on 29/06/21

All of the slaves are, in that moment, acting as leaders, they are leading through courageous actions by identifying themselves as their leader, Spartacus. For me, the motto of Spartacus is that anyone can be a leader. If anyone can be a leader, it follows that it’s never too early to start thinking about leadership skills in one’s career.

Leadership Is a Mindset Not a Job Title

There’s a lot of literature that focuses on the difference between leadership and management. The key to the difference lies in the qualities that are completely human centric and speak to those that we work with on that essentially human level. We often define this as inspirational – but it’s behaviours that others display that make us feel like we are both in this together and that we can perform at our best.

Leaders make us feel nurtured and safe to be the best versions of ourselves. It’s this understanding of leadership which has meant that literature about leadership has moved away from a focus on the traits of leaders and onto a focus of how the best leaders make other people feel. Many years ago, when I was teaching, I saw this in action in a course where myself and my co-lecturer would each direct half of the student group in a production at the end of the semester. My colleague was a frustrated director and liked to impose a very strong vision on his productions; I liked to come in with some ideas but also let the students work on developing ideas themselves. My colleague was also incredibly competitive. He wanted his productions to be the best and a result, this particular year, booked the majority of the time and space in the theatre to give his group the advantage.

My students were outraged but they also recognised that pulling together as a group would be our strength. Given we had been working closely as a group on the text and workshopping ideas around it, this gave them an ownership that the group working under the more authoritarian director did not have. One area I had struggled with, as the director, is how we effectively got our audience back into the theatre quickly as (inevitably) my colleague had taken the first performance slot. The students knew I was struggling with this and on their own got together over a weekend and worked on a vibrant improvisation that did the job in the most perfect way. They felt able to do this because we had come together as a group, meaning they felt empowered and that their ideas mattered. It was not all about me as the director: I was directing them to find their own ideas not merely to act out my visions. What I had given them were workshops and explorations around the text that helped them to have this confidence to really make it their own. We were all directing this play.

Similarly in an organisation, the best leaders focus on how to empower individuals, so that we are leading ourselves. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that so often we focus on the leader, when actually the root of the word leader is from an old English word lædan which means to guide or bring forth. If we transpose the roots of the word onto the modern business context, we can see that the focus of leadership is completely rooted in the experience of others not oneself.

The focus on leadership as a skill and the ability to apply it is seen nowhere more clearly than in the military. The inspiration for this article came from my husband’s own stories about how he developed leadership skills as a US Navy pilot.

Lynette Nusbacher who is a military historian, former army officer and now leadership consultant believes the key lies in the military’s recognition of leadership as a skillset in its own right:

“Armed forces around the world; though I’m particularly talking about the British and Commonwealth armed forces here, and their armies in particular; recognise leadership as a professional category in its own right. They recruit people for their leadership potential, they train them first for leadership, and they promote in significant measure on leadership ability.”

I’ll focus on the followship aspect of leadership in a more detailed manner in a future article, but if we consider that the practice of leadership is not as much about the individual as their effect on others, then why can’t that effect start at any point in one’s career?

Lynette Nusbacher agrees:

“If you want good leaders, you’ve got to develop good leaders. They don’t spring up ready-made.”

Leading Too Late?

A curious paradox in business and in law is that too often the human centred skills such as leading others, which are actually fundamental to success throughout one’s career, are only an area of focus when individuals get to an incredibly demanding point in their career and generally at the point when they already need those skills.

I think there are a number of issues at play here:

One is that we need to decouple leadership as a skill from actually being in a leadership or management role and having certain titles. Dan Kayne, General Counsel (Routes) at Network Rail and founder of The O Shaped Lawyer Group, which aims to introduce more rounded human centred skills into the legal profession, agrees that the terminology of leadership can often intimidate young lawyers.

“Often, I don’t use of the term leadership but focus on the behaviours: anyone can display leadership behaviours. The terminology of what being a leader means needs a broader understanding; when we speak about O Shaped Lawyer behaviours, they are, essentially, leadership behaviours. But if I spoke about O shaped leadership behaviours, those who don’t lead teams or have management responsibility might be put off believing it doesn’t apply to them. That couldn’t be further from the truth, so I tend to refer to skills and competencies to avoid this.”

Secondly that we therefore need to start getting professionals to think about being leaders, or using the skills that create leadership, from the very start of their careers.

It’s a debate which has come to the fore with the increase in digitisation of legal services. One of the issues which naysayers around digitisation focus on is, if commoditised work such as marking up standard contracts is automated, then how will younger lawyers be trained? Flipping the question, should this even be a template for training anymore? Does the legal profession need to look at training that demands more of its next generation and helps them to start working on the all-important human centred business skills that are a complement for, not a replacement, of top-notch technical skills? It’s also these human centred skills which will differentiate the human lawyer from the machine lawyer.

Dan Kayne agrees that it’s vital that lawyers start to think about these skills much earlier on in their professional journey:

“You start to pick up EQ and to be able to develop those skills from age of 18. From that point of view students’ brains are very much open to learning about human centred skills and capable of developing these skills. If you look at the legal profession these skills often only become an area of focus once lawyers have reached partnership positions – that can’t be right.”

Lynette Nusbacher, who has worked with a number of law firms, agrees:

“Almost every profession thinks that developing professional excellence and maturity automatically develops leadership, and it just doesn’t. The law promotes people who are brilliant, and it promotes people with a strong work ethic; and sometimes it promotes really sterling leaders into the right positions. It’s great when it happens, it really is; and I’ve worked with some excellent leaders. It would be better across the profession if there were a bigger cadre of senior leaders to choose from, and the only way to make that happen is to make leadership development a part of professional development from the very beginning.”

Another side effect of focusing on leadership much earlier in professionals’ careers is that it would, if handled correctly, democratise, the opportunities and paths to leadership. Business generally suffers from a lack of diversity at the top; law is even worse.

By focusing on leadership too late, have certain individuals already been discounted – often through no fault of their own? Many others may have also counted themselves out of this progression or even left the profession entirely. Dan Kayne of The O Shaped Lawyer feels this is definitely related to the lack of focus on EQ and human centred skills in the profession:

“If you take a group of subject matter experts, what we currently see happening in the legal profession is that the most expert and the highest billers tend to be the ones promoted to become the leader of their group but having the most expertise or billing the most, doesn’t automatically translate into them being the most suited to leading the team. The human/EQ skills aren’t treated as sufficiently important to attaining leadership positions, but rather a ‘nice to have’. Part of our campaign at the O Shaped Lawyer is about highlighting the importance of balancing EQ and IQ and that this will ultimately improve diversity in the profession. If we continue to promote those with only subject matter expertise to lead a team of subject matter experts, it is much more likely that these leaders will continue to recruit and promote in their own image.”

Demystifying Leadership

A key aspect is demystifying leadership and for leaders to be transparent about their own journeys and their own struggles with leadership.

A significant part of this demystifying leadership is decoupling leadership skills from leadership positions and encouraging people to start developing these early on.

It’s fundamental to understand the skills that can inspire others. It can be much easier for more junior members of a team to break down some of these skills needed to inspire others rather than focus on the big picture of ‘leadership’.

In no particular order of importance some of these key building blocks are:

  • Storytelling
  • Showing Vulnerability
  • Developing Trust
  • Listening and understanding
  • Influence
  • Finding purpose and ways for others to plug into purpose

Whilst these are distinct skills, they do overlap with each other, therefore working on one will automatically cause you to start considering aspects of the others. Before you know it, you may be displaying ‘leadership’!

Storytelling, for example, is one of the oldest human instincts. Telling and listening to stories is a fundamental human need. It’s a way in which we make sense of the world and it’s linked to purpose and how others can align to that purpose or find their own. Stories often allow us to display vulnerability, which in turn creates trust. Making ourselves vulnerable, helps create an environment of trust but also stimulates positive feelings in others and makes them more likely to help and co-operate.

In my story about the student theatre production, being open with the students about my creative block for the return after the interval, stimulated them to use their own creativity but they also wanted to help me. I had not tried to be infallible but had shown my vulnerability. The way we had worked as a group workshopping the text, allowed the entire group ownership over it and that way of working had also built a high level of trust.

All of these constituent parts of leadership can be used successfully with peers as well as those whom one may be leading in the traditional sense. It’s an important point to remember that these skills, which we associate with great leaders, can also be used with those who are our peers. Leadership is not only a top-down skill: seeing how we can influence peers; how we can build their trust and help them plug into a purpose can be even more effective coming from someone who is at the same level or just once removed or even our customer says Lynette Nusbacher:

“The inspiration that a good leader can deliver matters to the colleague, to other leaders, and especially to the customer.”

Unlike those in senior leadership roles, we may have a better understanding of our peers and greater empathy with them: qualities that are key components in creating influence and helping create change. Indeed, the best leaders can mimic this peer-to-peer skillset by making junior reports feel valued in the moment, not waiting for formal reviews. Leaders can also tap into the influence that peers can bring to bear on each other by reinforcing that you are a team through emphasising the fact that there is nothing that the leader would ask you to do that they would not be willing or able to do themselves. Both of these qualities- giving feedback in the moment and emphasising the democracy of experience in the team are strategies which help create cohesion in a team and inspire others. These are skills that the best leaders do display but certainly do not need to be confined to those with leadership roles.

Lynette Nusbacher feels that the rationing out of leadership skills is detrimental to businesses and law firms:

“Every level of a law firm needs people with leadership skills. Every level of legal function in a business needs people with leadership skills. When I hear that leadership needs to be rationed out, as though it would be wasted on mere team leaders, my head starts to spin. Leadership skills make associates. Leadership skills make good legal directors, and oh my goodness, leadership skills make good partners!”

Delegation: Creating Leaders

Whilst more junior team members can start to proactively think about introducing leadership skills into what they do, it’s going to have a lot more effect if they are actually allowed to put it into practice. That’s why existing leaders should not be afraid to delegate and to create opportunities for those with varying levels of experiences. Sometimes we might want to align these opportunities to areas which more junior members feel passionate about and have expertise in outside of their ‘day job.’ For example, can younger lawyers, as digital natives, bring a fresh perspective to leading a technology project? Will their passion about climate change bring new perspectives to an ESG initiative? One legal team I know tapped up some of its more junior members to create a virtual internship for diverse law students during Covid.

In legal training it’s been an area of concern for many years that the profession has too much of a focus purely on specialised technical skills and, in the early stages, repetitive commoditised work. Ten years ago, Professor Stephen Mayson argued that legal education and training was not fit for purpose and in the intervening ten years his main points are still valid. Groups such as The O shaped Lawyer and The Bionic Lawyer, which have come together from across the profession, argue that there is too much focus on the specialisation of law and not on the human centred skills which are fundamental for success in business. One of these is leadership and its constituent parts. What’s needed says Dan Kayne is a questioning of the norms we have developed around professional development in the legal profession:

“People often say to me, ‘Junior lawyers have to learn their trade first,’ but I would argue that developing these skills is part of their trade. Certainly, in-house it is central to what we do – it should be the same across the profession.” That bifurcation of skills for lawyers in-house versus in private practice is mirrored in the bifurcation of opportunities for young lawyers in each camp.

Dan Kayne believes that the in-house experience makes lawyers more open to developing leadership skills,

“Given the breadth of issues and challenges in house lawyers face, they have to be adaptable and flexible. It becomes a virtuous circle where the more they learn and grow, more of an appetite they get for developing more skills. Most large organisations have high quality leadership programmes which lawyers at all levels can participate in. There is also a much more structured approach to personal development, including formal personal development plans and regular development conversations. The more that development opportunities are discussed, the more, then people become aware of the types of programmes available that could increase their skills sets. In house this provides a great opportunity for the lawyers to connect with business colleagues (their customers), build relationships with them and understand the value that the legal team can create for them – it’s a win-win.”

Creating Leaders at Any Point

To change some of the issues around leadership in law, we need to start talking about leadership earlier but also breaking it down into manageable components. If leadership is only discussed in terms of world changing leaders like, say, Nelson Mandela, it is naturally going to seem out of reach for someone at the start of their career, whatever that career is. However, bringing leadership as a concept and its constituent skills into the conversation from the start of a professional’s career will show that leadership is both a mindset and a skillset; not a magical aura which is only achieved when the mantle is bestowed on you at some unspecified point in your future career.

Leadership is a journey we can all take and it’s never too early to start.

Related content