In today’s challenging and rapidly changing marketplace, managing partners need to do much more than “manage”—they have to demonstrate true leadership to get their firms around the twists and turns to long-term success. Effective leaders develop a clear vision of where they want their constituents to go, and then they lead those constituents there in a way that makes them voluntarily want to follow.
While these two tasks may seem straightforward on the surface, in actual practice there are myriad ways to carry them out. Some manuals urge leaders to emulate warrior chieftains (like Wess Roberts's The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun), while others advocate a gentler approach (like Laurie Beth Jones's Jesus, CEO). It's important, though, to recognize that one size does not fit all. People differ, bringing a variety of skills and personality traits to the role. And not all situations are similar or static. A style that works well in one firm, with one culture, might be disastrous in another firm facing a different set of challenges.
Research seems to show that the best leaders have a certain flexibility in their approach, an ability to match their style to the situation. Some leadership styles are simply more effective in certain situations than others. However, the challenge is not simply an intellectual one, matching the style to the needs of the firm. The best leaders use a combination of intellect and emotional savvy. They choose the style that best fits the situation and then skillfully use emotions-their own and others'-to get the job done.
Comparing the Major Styles
There are six different leadership styles identified by research:
Two of them work particularly well when you're leading knowledge workers, of which lawyers are a prime example. Two others are reasonably good for knowledge workers, especially when combined with one of the first two styles. And the last two styles? They are actually ineffective and even counterproductive. Unfortunately, they are also the two most common styles we see in untrained lawyer-leaders.
Let's take a look at each of these styles and how they work in the law firm setting.
Putting It All Together
So, what's your leadership style? You can measure this using a variety of survey tools, including both "self-report" and 180-degree feedback mechanisms (meaning feedback from those junior to you). The latter can be especially informative. After all, you may be convinced that you are a visionary and affiliative leader, but if everyone else rates you as commanding and pacesetting, obviously there is a disconnect that you need to know about.
Data do show that as a whole, visionary leaders are more effective than commanding leaders, and mentoring leaders get more out of their people than pacesetting leaders. When leading lawyers, it's generally best to use a combination of those two styles, and to stay away from the pacesetting and commanding ones. But the best leaders utilize multiple styles based on what's appropriate in a particular situation. A key to leadership success, then, is to know what your default style is and to consciously adopt a style that is best suited to the circumstances. Good luck!
Larry Richard, PhD , is the Vice President in charge of the Leadership & Organization Development Practice (LOD) at Hildebrandt International. A former trial lawyer, he is an expert on leadership, group and team dynamics, talent management for lawyers, and lawyers' personalities.
Mark Sirkin, PhD , is a consultant in the LOD Practice at Hildebrandt International and specializes in developing law firm leaders both individually and firmwide. He is the author of The Secret Life of Corporations (New Chrysalis Press, 2004).
These ideas are based on research by Dr. David C. McClelland of Harvard University and his consulting firm, McBer. They have been popularized by Daniel Goleman in his books and articles about emotional and social intelligence. Based on the authors' extensive experience with law firms, we have adapted some of the essential ideas, and changed some of the wording, for law firm leaders.