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Vol. 32, No. 6

Leadership 101: You can learn a lot down on the farm

by Michelle A. Behnke

As I started writing this column, spring had finally sprung. Being from Wisconsin, I have to admit, my thoughts turned to the ritual of spring preparation on the farms all around. When you think about it, bar leadership is much like farming.

When you step into bar leadership, there are so many things to do, so many meetings to attend, so many speeches to give—maybe even a few weeds to pull. With all there is to do, it is easy to jump into planting the seeds that you planned for “your year,” but if you don’t spend time with the fundamentals, those seeds will not take hold, and you won’t grow much that year.

So what do you have to do to prepare the soil of the association for your leadership? You have to focus on bringing people together effectively! Bringing people together is at the heart of the work of the association, and without the ability to bring members together, a leader won’t accomplish much. Below are my top three tips about how leaders bring people together—and the weeds that grow when you don’t focus on this fundamental element of leadership.

1. The Garden of Silos. Have you ever been with a group that does not seem to be working well? Each person is acting independently, standing separately—like a garden of silos guarding the grain within. Often in bar associations, when appointments are made, you look for people from a variety of practice and geographic settings as well as people with expertise on the subject. However, my experience is that these individuals may not automatically “gel” into a fine-tuned working group unless you work to truly bring them together and make them a group. Sometimes, each member thinks that the role within the group is to guard his or her turf.

How do you avoid or break down the garden of silos? Once you bring a group of people together, it is important to recognize the expertise or viewpoint that each person brings, give the group a “charge” or mission, and ask them to work for the good of the organization. This last step is often assumed but not explicitly said. Tell the group that each person is there to share expertise on the subject, but not to guard individual turf. If you fail to explain the role of each person in serving, it may mean that each person acts as a silo—and this may get in the way of the group coming together.

Breaking down the silos helps the group listen and be open to a variety of perspectives and solutions. To bring people together, be sure to help them break down the silos and understand that their work is for the “greater good of the association,” not just the protection of each individual special interest.

2. Henpecking Hecklers. How often have you been part of a group, and when the report or findings are presented, there’s immediate skepticism or doubt about the recommendation or next steps? The attacks can come from all sides, and those who prepared the report feel henpecked in no time. It’s frustrating to have hard work discounted or dismissed and attacked before it can even be widely shared. Those who have worked on the task may feel like the time spent was unappreciated and wasted.

The problem may not be in the outcome that the committee put forth, but in the process used to do the work. If everyone is not aware of the process, or if the process is not transparent to the members, there will be doubt or skepticism in the outcome. An important step in bringing people together is to bring them in on every step in the process, from committee selection, to meetings, to communication of the outcome. Transparency is another important tool in bringing people together.

3. Gaggle of Geese. Do you ever feel like you’re talking, but no one is listening? Even though your association is facing what you consider to be one of the most important issues of the day, don’t assume your members can hear you. It may be hard to believe that your members are not reading your president’s column first thing when the publication hits their desk, but in fact, practitioners are taking care of their clients, their families, and their communities. Your column may not be read until the crisis is over.

Overcoming the din of noise that is the daily practice of law and the press of work is an important first step to bringing your members together on the important issues of the day. You have to tell them, tell them again, and tell them in different ways. Just because you’ve said it 100 times, does not mean your members have heard it even once. Find different ways to get the information out. The president’s column, email, a substantive article in the bar journal, and one-on-one conversations are some of the tools that you must employ to get the message out. Communication is a central function of bringing people together, and you must go the extra mile to communicate what the association is doing for the benefit of its members.

Of course, by the time you read this, spring will be a memory and summer will be in full swing. But just like farming requires tending of the fields each year, so, too, leadership requires tending to the fundamental of leadership and working to bring people together—whatever the season.