Over the past 20 years, I have observed a range of leaders and leadership styles in professional service firms. Over this same period, there has been an exponential increase of interest in the subject of leadership, and the crucial role that it plays in the success (and occasionally the failure) of law firms. This case study consolidates these observations and suggests a descriptive framework aimed at increasing understanding and effectiveness in this area.
The ‘Incremental Progressive'
Those who have a strong ambition for their firm, and the political wherewithal to make things happen, may be regarded as ‘Incremental Progressives'. They recognise that movement towards the end goal which they envision will take time; it will be as a result of steely determination combined with an acceptance of incremental progress. The critical path is defined by the need to maintain consensus and commitment, rather than focus on rational investment profile or Gantt chart analysis.
Yet, it is the ‘Incremental Progressive' who has the intellectual and personality tools to make real and enduring changes within their firm, to build a string brand, and to provide a legacy for their successors. Their combination of ambition and political sense means that they are able to glide over the treacle that so encumbers the less savvy yet ambitious, but without stooping into the self-aggrandising approach of those focused on the perpetuation of their personal position.
Can ambition and ego be comfortable bedfellows?
Turning to the issue of ambition and the impact that this can have on effectiveness of the leadership function, it is instructive to consider some of the academic research that has been carried out into the behaviour of great leaders. One of the seminal papers in the field is ‘Level Five Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve', by Jim Collins (published in Harvard Business Review, July/August 2005). Collins' study illustrates that the very best leaders (those at level five in his model) have an unusual (and in many ways paradoxical) blend of personal humility and professional will that allows them to build great and enduring organisations.
So what are the implications of this research for law firms? By mapping ambition for the firm against personal ego drive, it is possible to construct a model, which helps to explain how these traits can impact on the personal brand of the leader, as well as the likely success of the firm.
Of course, the reader with knowledge of the market will be able to think of law firm leaders who could be placed in each of the quadrants, but the purpose of this article is not to poke fun or embarrass, but to highlight the impact of these traits on the current and future success of the business.
Figure 2: The correlation between traits of leaders and their personal brand
Invisible and Incidental'
The ‘Invisible and Incidental' leaders are most notable for their anonymity, and act as fringe players, played out by the ‘super egos' in their firm or practice group.
For their organisations, success or failure happens in spite of
their presence, rather than because of any active involvement that they
have had in shaping its future direction and driving its implementation.
Law firms are, unfortunately, replete with ‘Pompous Self-Promoters'. Armed with a huge ego, they will view leadership as a platform from which to broadcast, even more widely, their own self-importance. For many in this quadrant, promotion of self can only be achieved by the belittling of others; consequently, their term of leadership is characterised by division and malcontent.
Smart firms now recognise that there can
be no place for these personalities in their leadership teams, regardless of
their abilities as lawyers, if the firm is to prosper in the longer term.
‘Iconic Personal Brand'
‘I'm great and the firm's great – with me at the helm we can be even greater!' This typifies the approach of the ‘Iconic Personal Brand-Builder'.
Be under no illusions that leaders in this quadrant can be phenomenally successful. They have ambition for the firm squarely in their sights.
The longer-term question for the organisation is how much of this success is viewed as ‘stand-alone', and how much is inextricably linked to the persona of the leader. Confidence (both individual and collective) is an important issue in driving the performance of a law firm; a misplaced belief that success can only be achieved with the current leader can be a huge impediment to progress in the early days of any subsequent regime.
The question is always, ‘What happens
next?' The smart organisation has an eye
to succession planning in advance of any impending changes. Continued
success of the firm will only be secured if the next incumbent is well prepared
and equipped to take the business to the next level of its development.
Builds the firm above the person
This is a leader, analogous to the level five personality, who will position the performance of the firm above any personal contribution that they have made. Combined with ambition to drive the firm forward and the nous to navigate the shark-infested political waters ahead, this leader has the potential to make a significant and enduring difference to the future success of their firm.
That is not to say that such leaders will be invisible to the outside world either. In the intrusive and media-heavy world in which law firms operate, they will become known and respected. They will rise to their responsibilities to engage with external media without treating such a platform as their personal ‘soap-box'. They will always (and genuinely) place praise for success at the door of their people and their clients, not because their PR advisers tell them that this is what they should do, but because they genuinely believe it to be the case.
next for law firms and their leaders?
The challenges facing the leaders of law firms have never been greater, and as a corollary, the impact that great leaders can have on the future of their firms cannot be overstated. Recognition of the way in which a leader's behaviour can impact on the performance and long-term health of their firm is crucial.
Collective action is needed from the wider governance team to ensure that potential leaders with the required personality traits and behaviours are given the opportunity to develop and utilise their talents, in order to take their firm forward.
Published in Leadership Development in the