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Vol. 38 No. 4

The bar leader as facilitator

by Jeffrey Cufaude

If leadership is about doing the right thing and management is about doing things right, then facilitation is about helping individuals and groups do the right thing right.

Indications are everywhere that we need individuals at all levels of an organization to possess facilitation skills: More work is being done in small groups or teams; more decisions are being made collaboratively in consultation with others.

A yearning for greater community in organizations is also happening at the same time that the diversity of perspectives, talents, and cultures present in them is increasing. Finally, as author Patrick Lencioni notes, “Weighing in is a prerequisite for buying in.” This is particularly true in voluntary associations where members have a strong desire to be a part of the process.

All of these signs combined suggest that greater success in your role as a bar leader can result from incorporating a facilitative leadership approach. The good news? Facilitation is a skill that any individual can master. Anyone can (and everyone should) make facilitative contributions to the work of his or her bar association, and you as an association leader can model the way.

Five fundamentals of facilitative leadership

1. Facilitative leadership makes connections and helps make meaning. In a fast-paced environment overloaded with information, the need for connections is great. Facilitative leaders listen for and seek to make (or help others make) the connection between what is occurring in a conversation and what has occurred in other places or at other times. Effective facilitation involves periodically asking the question, "How does this discussion connect with others we have been having?"

Facilitative leaders seek to connect comments made by various individuals in a meeting or on a conference call. Because facilitation involves deeper and more active listening, you likely have a greater overall sense of the connections present among disparate threads of conversation. Facilitative leadership means you manage the conversation more than you actively participate in the content of it. In doing so, you help group members make these connections, as well as identify the meaning behind what is occurring.

2. Facilitative leadership operates from a position of restraint. The fact that groups often do not see facilitative leaders "take control" is by design, not by accident. Individuals using a facilitative approach provide leadership to the group without deciding things for it unless it is particularly helpful or specific to their position responsibilities.

When group members do not share ownership of the group and its outcomes, any commitments made will likely lack sustainability. Too often, individuals abdicate their leadership responsibility to the person “in charge.” In order for groups to realize their full potential, every individual must be concerned with the good of the whole. Because of this, facilitative leaders more often are seen asking, rather than telling groups exactly what they need to be doing ... helping them move forward rather than directing their movement.

Facilitative leadership balances or manages both content and process, ideas and actions, discussions and decisions. Bar leaders using a facilitative approach are concerned both with what the group is discussing or deciding, as well as how they are actually doing it.

Effective facilitation often involves working with other association volunteers to establish some shared agreements for how they will have their conversations with each other—the group process aspect of their work. These agreements are then used as guidelines for discussions and as evaluation criteria for how well the group accomplished its charge: "We've made some significant decisions today. When you reflect on the conversations that led to them, how well did we do on the agreements we established earlier?"

Sometimes group process is quickly dismissed as "soft stuff" that keeps groups from the real work of making decisions. In command and control hierarchical organizations—those where it is expected and accepted that one person is “in charge”—less attention to group process might be acceptable. But in the more collegial environment of most associations, individuals want their perspectives considered and their contributions and ideas solicited and appreciated.

3. Facilitative leadership helps surface unacknowledged or invisible beliefs, thoughts, or patterns. In your leadership role, you likely will have to help other volunteers identify and discuss the important issues they may be unaware of—or unwilling to address. Call it what you want—the dead cow on the table, the elephant in the middle of the room, or the skunk smelling up the place—most groups have some issues they need to discuss in order to move forward on key decisions and efforts.

Facilitative leaders use assertive, yet nonthreatening questioning to help bring those issues to the surface: "What are the real issues we have yet to discuss today?" You’re not interrogating a witness; you’re making it possible for a peer to raise what might be a tough observation to share.

4. Facilitative leadership builds the capacity of individuals and groups to accomplish more on their own, now and in the future. As a bar leader, it is natural that your first concern may be what transpires during your term of office. But for your association to truly be successful, it needs leaders who also take the longer view, intentionally managing current efforts to help support efforts of leaders during subsequent years.

This long-term definition of success means you want to work with the group in a way that creates interdependence among the other volunteers and not dependence on you in your specific leadership position. It will not always be the most efficient way to make decisions or get work done, but it will be more effective over time as it builds the confidence and capabilities of more people to help move the organization forward. In short, it builds a deeper bench of talented individuals who can step into future leadership roles.

5. Facilitative leaders help build capacity by regularly engaging others in a self-assessment: "What are we learning from how we are doing our work? What is working well that we want to preserve? What could we be doing better?" Capturing and organizing this information for use in leadership transition is particularly critical in volunteer groups, where continuity can often be challenging.

Making the commitment to facilitative leadership

Every person can add the role and lens of a facilitator to relationships with others. Making a commitment to do so, however, needs to be done thoughtfully. Authenticity is a necessity; it's one of the hallmarks of the full-time facilitator. As the Sufi philosopher Rumi says, "If you are unfaithfully with us, you are causing terrible harm." Appropriating a few techniques learned in a workshop or from a book without authentically incorporating them into your overall leadership identity may cause them to be seen and experienced as insincere or manipulative.

Any time we choose to alter the "normal" style most individuals would associate with our work, we need to be sensitive to how that change might be perceived and received. If you are viewed as a real "take charge" type of person, shifting to a strong facilitation stance will be seen as a dramatic change, one that could lead some to question your intentions.

Rather than changing overnight, gradually introduce a greater commitment to facilitative leadership in your regular interactions with others. For instance, when you find yourself about to tell someone or a group what to do, pull back a bit and ask a thoughtful question that might help the group discover for themselves what most needs to be done. When you need to coach someone on a specific behavior or situation, make sure to probe if other relevant issues are what actually need to be discussed.

Rigid lines between leadership and management are often drawn in professional literature, almost suggesting that one is right and one is wrong. In reality, bar associations, like any organization, need individuals who both do the right thing and are capable of doing things right. Organizations need people who can help individuals and groups do the right things right ... the very nature of facilitative leadership.

(Note: If you're ready to sharpen your facilitative leadership skills, please read Jeffrey Cufaude's "12 key skills for facilitative leaders," also in this issue.)

Jeffrey Cufaude

For more than 20 years, Jeffrey Cufaude has been an architect of ideas, helping individuals and organizations create more compelling possibilities through his staff leadership, consulting, speaking, and writing. He spoke on facilitation at the 2013 ABA Bar Leadership Institute and will be the closing session speaker at this year's BLI. Learn more at or follow Jeffrey on Twitter, @jcufaude.