As lawyers, we often find the characteristics of great leadership contrary to our natural inclinations. Lawyers are often hardwired to manage not lead.
Our training in the law programmes us to avoid risk, reduce the likelihood of failure and not take chances.
These are traits suited to good managers, but not good leaders.
While these two words are often used interchangeably, there are important differences.
While managers complete tasks and ‘get the job done’ by telling people what to do and when, great leaders appreciate the importance of taking chances, failing and inspiring those around them to push themselves further than they thought possible. They know that to succeed you need to try something new and learn deeply from the inevitable defeats that come as a result.
Inspire others to ‘set sail’
Our Chief Legal Officer, Adey Denson, uses a wonderful quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “If you want to build a boat, do not instruct the men to saw wood, stitch the sails, prepare the tools and organise the work. Instead, make them long for setting sail and travel to distant lands”.
Leadership is about igniting that collective passion for travel. I think we as lawyers sometimes prefer it when we know and control the destination and get a kick from organising how to get there.
This is a lesson I continue to try and teach myself. Sometimes I succeed, often I fail but I try and be conscious of which path I’m taking and resolve to be a better leader next time around.
When leadership is under pressure
Rising to the challenge of leadership is especially difficult when your backs are against the wall.
In our firm, we operate in an ever-changing and challenging sector of the law. Early on, we decided that to succeed we needed to innovate and find new solutions to old problems. I feel like we’ve made real progress, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t dark days along the way.
A phrase that neatly sums up leading the firm during this time is, “managing on the battlefield, leading in the garden”.
Which style we adopt at any given time in a law firm’s life cycle very much dictates whether management or leadership is more appropriate.
Needless to say, it is always a mix, but I found that when we were smaller, when our backs were against the wall and we were fighting, the more directive, adult/child, controlling nature of management often won out.
Now we are larger, the more empowering, adult/adult adaptive nature of leadership is by far the most prevalent style at Fletchers.
Of course, there are still times when you feel the call to strap on the armour again and prepare for battle. Nevertheless, with the benefit of hindsight, applying strong, wise and kind leadership – irrespective of your organisation’s size or situation – is always the right way to act.
Control your management instincts
Being self-aware and watching your instincts is an important skill to learn if you want to develop a good leadership style.
One prompt to give yourself, is to keep your eye on the bigger picture.
As lawyers, we seek out the ‘micro’, but true leaders embrace the ‘macro’.
As solicitors we live and die by the detail of a case. Mastering the minutiae is often the difference between winning and losing for your client. That’s why management can come easily to some lawyers as it’s about setting clear goals, sticking to the plan, managing the process (we LOVE process!) to achieve the objective.
Instead, leadership is about creating and selling a vision of a brighter future and infusing that vision with energy and hope (remember the setting sail quote?).
Instead of looking at the file on your desk, leaders need to remember to lift their heads and keep an eye on the horizon at all times.
Reminding yourself of this, next time you feel the warm embrace of the nitty-gritty detail of a problem, will go a long way to developing your leadership credentials.
Another reminder to give yourself (and another phrase I have stolen – this time from Alex Hatchman, our COO) is that we manage work and we lead people.
Managers focus on building systems and processes to ensure the goal is achieved. Leaders build deep relationships with all the key stakeholders on a human level and provide clarity of purpose, the tools and the space to enable the stakeholders to do their thing.
The results can be remarkable but can only be achieved after direction is provided and if the relationship is strong enough for trust to be in place.
I see leadership as similar to parenthood. A good leader lays the foundations for others to succeed. Not seeking glory or adoration for themselves, but taking immense pleasure from seeing others learn new skills, grow beyond their perceived limits and outshine you.
When lawyers become good leaders, I always think that it is despite our training rather than because of it.
That said, I do believe lawyers can make great leaders. We are normally quite bright and, as long as we can de-couple ourselves for long enough from our more controlling instincts, we have the ability to grasp complex problems and sort them.
I urge all aspiring leaders to be wary of our learned behaviours from our legal training, embrace the unknown and chart a course for where the sea meets the sky. Happy sailing.
Ed Fletcher is CEO of Fletchers Solicitors a medical negligence and serious injury law firm.