Leadership Is Not Fear-Inducing

Collaborative LeadershipShould leadership tactics be different because of the changes engulfing the practice of law? Maybe. A dictatorial, hierarchical approach to management has flourished in many legal organizations over the past many decades. The managing partner or a department head would deliver the marching orders, and the troops would follow. That heyday has come and gone.

As in other fields, it is nearly impossible for one lawyer to be an “expert” anymore.  There’s too much information gathering steam out there for one person to always be on top of trends without help. Yet, clients still demand and lawyers must deliver expert-level knowledge. The only way to have and maintain expertise is through collaboration and interaction with others, which requires a different type of leadership than the traditional top-down approach.

Rex Huppke, in his recent “I Just Work Here” column in the Chicago Tribune earlier this week highlighted the concept of “relational leadership” as a management approach. In other words, treat employees and others as humans, ask about their lives, get to know them.  Listen. Forging sincere relationships with co-workers can be the key to making a workplace work. The column cited a paper co-authored by Chris Long, assistant professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, about the importance of having and maintaining relationships to build trust among employees.

Sound a little warm and fuzzy for legal organizations? Indeed, most lawyer-employees I talk to have expressed that the opposite is the reality in their work lives: a lack of trust between them and the partners/management. Is this the norm in firms, and is it time for a change?

Leading by Fear Isn’t Leading

Last April I gave a presentation to hand-picked associates in the Alabama State Bar Association’s Leadership Forum.  The selection process of the 30 lawyers chosen from across the state to participate was intense.  As a presenter, I was afforded access to the lengthy questionnaires completed by the selected participants. They were asked many questions about their careers, their aspirations, their leadership expectations and the leadership styles of those in their organizations. I was dismayed by the number of individuals who stated that they wanted to learn more about leadership because the partners or top lawyers in their organizations “lead by fear.”

At the program, we talked about the term “leading by fear” and we came to the conclusion that it is impossible to truly lead “by fear.” People follow a leader if they are inspired.  If they are afraid, they may comply with certain tasks. But they will not be inspired.  Training someone to respond by making them afraid of consequences isn’t leading. (That’s no longer considered good training.  Even dogs are trained through the use of positive reinforcement these days.)

A much better approach is through collaborative leadership.  An October 2014 post highlighted collaboration as an essential skill for success within the legal community.

Collaborative leadership calls for lawyer-leaders to engage a diverse team with specializations working together in order to attain the most advantageous solutions.  It is more than just dictating; it provides collaborators with the opportunity to contribute their individualized knowledge.  It actually sounds a lot more like coaching than dictating or managing.

Abraham Lincoln, Master Collaborator

One renowned collaborative leader was Abraham Lincoln.  As a man with little formal education, he sought out opportunities to learn from others and relied on experts for advice.  Russ Linden’s article, Abraham Lincoln and the Art of Collaborative Leadership, highlights Lincoln’s effective use of collaborative leadership, namely in his approach to implementing emancipation.

The article describes the five key characteristics of effective collaborative leadership employed by Lincoln. Here are those keys, modified to ways they can be applied to your legal practice.

1.  Achieve the Goal, Keep Egos in Check

The goal of legal practice is consistent: achieve the most favorable outcome for your client.  However, sometimes achieving that goal will require outside information, knowledge or insight.  Seeking advice instead of dictating strategy should not be seen as a hit to your authority, but rather an opportunity to more effectively serve your clients.

2.  Listen Carefully to Understand Others’ Perspectives

Collaboration requires listening: listening to clients to determine their needs; listening to opposing counsel to understand his or her argument; and, listening to colleagues to gain their perspectives.  By listening carefully, you can achieve your clients’ goals while addressing the needs of everyone involved in a knowledgeable, competent manner.

3.  Seek Win-Win Solutions

By understanding others’ needs, you can develop targeted solutions that address the specific interests of the other party or parties, as well as those of your client’s. Law is not necessarily a zero sum game. More often than not, everyone can go home a winner.

4.  Use Pull More Than Push

A “push” strategy involves using the authority of your position to achieve your goals, akin to invoking fear.  A “p-Pull” approach taps into others’ values, goals, or interests to move towards a common goal, more like inspiring action.  Seeking and incorporating input from colleagues, clients and opponents builds an environment of respect and teamwork.

5.  Think Strategically and Connect the Project to a Larger Purpose

The legal process can be long and daunting, especially for clients who are unfamiliar with it.  Strive to develop an approach that will allow your clients to understand how your strategy will achieve their goals.  By using a collaborative approach in developing this strategy, your clients and colleagues will feel more invested in the process and connected to the outcome.

By applying these five characteristics of effective collaborative leadership to your legal practice, you will benefit.

Our intern from IIT-Kent College of Law, Lauren McGee, contributed to this post.

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Jayne Reardon
As a prior trial lawyer, Jayne leads lawyers to embrace the transformative possibilities of future law practice. As a prior disciplinary counsel, Jayne is passionate about promoting the core values of the legal profession. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Notre Dame. Jayne lives in Park Ridge, Illinois with her husband and those of her four children who are not otherwise living in college towns and beyond.
Jayne Reardon

One thought on “Leadership Is Not Fear-Inducing

  1. Really good post Jayne. You hit the nail on the head when you talk about the need for these changes due to the “changes engulfing the practice of law.” One thing I would add is that making these changes isn’t optional. As you mentioned, people have way more access to information then ever before. This means that the knowledge gap between the lawyer and the public has dwindled and the ivory tower attorneys have typically resided in is now only about six inches off of the ground. The one attorneys will often struggle with the most is collaboration (#2) – the law firms/small firms that understand this going forward, and implement a team based “just get it done” approach are going to clean up while many get left behind.

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