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September 01, 2021 Vol. 47, No. 1

Personality, leadership style, and playing to strengths: A Q&A with Marc Smiley

Marc Smiley

Marc Smiley

Often, when we talk about what makes a good bar president, we mention things like going to a lot of events; knowing how to work a room and make everyone feel welcome, important, and included; and representing the bar well to reporters and at speaking engagements. Maybe this person is also a bold presence whom others will want to follow.

As important as these things are, is it possible that some potentially great presidents are overlooked because they don’t fit this description as naturally as some others or don’t perceive that they’re “the kind of person” who would do a good job?

Marc Smiley is the principal with Solid Ground Consulting, specializing in organizational development, strategic planning and fundraising. He has worked extensively with nonprofit organizations, associations, and public agencies across the country and is an adjunct professor at the Nonprofit Institute at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government.  A frequent faculty member at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute, Smiley has written two books on effective nonprofits: Land Trust Boards: Preparing for Perpetuity, and Building the Foundation for Fundraising Success.

He’s also someone who thinks a lot about what makes an effective leader and how personality characteristics and strengths play a role and can be used to their best advantage. Here’s what he had to say in a recent conversation with Bar Leader about personality and leadership.

Bar Leader: When you picture the ideal leader of a bar or other such organization, do you have a certain vision in mind, or are there perhaps multiple "ideals?"

Marc Smiley: I think leadership comes in many forms and flavors. Sometimes that leadership is a perfect match for the organization’s needs, sometimes not. But there are no perfect leaders, just as there is not one way in which organizations need leaders.

My experience with leaders from literally hundreds of organizations and associations is that the very best leaders are the ones who can “style flex,” or modify their style to meet the specific needs of the organization at a specific time, which can change over the years. This seems especially true since many associations have a long leadership pipeline. That means the right leader is not selected for a particular need, but according to a particular schedule.

Presidents who can at times inspire and motivate, and other times empower and support the strengths of others, prove to be the most versatile and effective leaders of all. That second part is too often overlooked.

BL: One aspect of personality that has gained a lot of attention in recent years is the concept of introverts and extroverts. Do you think that self-described extroverts are naturally more inclined to do well in this kind of leadership role, or could a self-described introvert have some different skills that would help them be an effective leader?

MS: Extroversion is overrated, in my mind. And I am one! Extroverts often have the first answer, the quick response, and the verbal acuity to speak comfortably in any situation. But they do not have any monopoly on good thinking or effective leadership.  And sometimes the over-application of their strengths becomes their weaknesses.

It is true that extroverts will generally do a better job (or at least be more comfortable) with public speaking and press work. But they may be much less effective at building coalitions, growing other leaders, negotiating agreements, and maintaining cohesion within an organization. Those strengths may come more naturally to introverts with a different set of leadership styles.

The book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain provides a great analysis of how introverts can be effective outside of their strength, but also how to put their introvert “superpowers” forward more completely.  It highlights key strengths and capabilities that too often get overlooked.

BL: Say that someone is in line for bar presidency or is considering being bar president, but they see themselves as not quite fitting the mold of their predecessors or their perception of how presidents are. How much do you think they should try to bend themselves to fit that mold, and how much do you think they should try to be authentic and honest about who they are?

MS: I believe strongly in the notion that we all possess strengths that can be used to guide our leadership approach. Since our strengths vary from person to person, so will our leadership style.

There are some universal needs among all leaders—ability to communicate, willingness to take charge when needed, ability to discern problem from symptom, and more. Some of those needs are well-matched to extroverts (such as communication in crisis), but some are better suited to deep-thinking, slower processing introverts.

The lessons of a field called strength science are that we should understand and lead with our strengths, and recognize our shortcomings to ensure they don’t get in our way. To make a weakness a strength is often a bridge too far—almost none of us can fundamentally change who we are. Nor should we. But if we recognize that one of our challenges is, let’s say, speaking to the press, we can manage that. We can get training and support to do what we must do.

But frankly, there are limits here. We can also empower others to play that role when it is critical—perhaps another board officer or the executive director for whom this is a strength and natural fit.

BL: It sounds as if you think some of the typical presidential duties can be delegated in some cases if they are not within a particular president’s strengths. Is that right?

MS: I think the job of president is almost always too big for one person. And I think the job of vice president (or president-elect, and sometimes secretary) is nearly always meaningless. We all understand that the second in line is supposed to step in for the president when needed, but if never needed, it’s a wasted opportunity.

I strongly support the idea of building teams of diverse strengths, and having someone at the lead of the team who ensures the right person with the right strengths is doing the right thing. If a president is not facile in crisis communication and personnel issues, it may be much better to have the president-elect or vice president bring her strengths forward to fill in. This truly can be a win for a president who is unlikely to be successful in this situation, for a president-elect whose strengths often never get tapped when needed, and an organization that needs the communication to be exactly right in delicate situations, and can’t afford a colossal mistake.

There will inevitably be tasks asked of leaders that force us to dig deeper and do what must be done, knowing we may struggle. Not all leadership situations are comfortable. In those cases, I hope leaders give themselves the grace to do their best, learn what can be learned, and be better prepared to anticipate and respond to the situation in the future.

BL: Earlier, you mentioned style flexing. Can you explain it a bit, and how a bar president might develop and use this skill, especially if particular tasks don’t come naturally to them?

MS: Style flexing is a fundamental strategy for situational leadership, an aspect of leadership developed by Paul Hersey and others at the Center for Leadership Studies. What they found was that leaders need a balance of supportive and directive behavior depending on the needs of the follower and the situation they are in. When competence for a given task is low, more direction may be needed. When confidence in a given task is low, support may be needed. It all depends on the following and the task—flexing to be more or less directive, and more or less supportive, is what it means to “style flex” to a situation.

Just more generally, I think leaders benefit when they do what the organization and situation requires of them, rather than what they want to do. I know this sounds odd, but many bar presidents come into their job with something they want to accomplish—which may or may not be what the organization needs. Letting go of personal ambition and accomplishment for the needs of the association is a different level of leadership.

Great leaders distinguish themselves by being what the organization needs at the time, regardless of their preference. That takes a breadth of capability—leadership skills that can be learned—and tremendous humility to know when the need is greater than what I can do. When that happens, leaders need the teams they have developed around them. The broader the capabilities of the team—and flexibility to deploy those strengths—the more likely the right leadership will be present when the circumstances require it.

BL: In terms of supportive vs. directive management and leadership, how could a bar president “flex” between those two styles in some typical scenarios, such as in their relationship with the chief staff executive, in the boardroom, or in working with task forces or other groups that they appoint?

MS: There are a couple of strategies I would consider. In work with executives and volunteers, managing success and not process keeps board presidents in a leadership role and out of micromanagement. Creating clear definitions of what success looks like from the beginning allows leaders to hold others accountable. More important,  it helps others be focused in their work, clear about their priorities, and overall more satisfied with their participation.

Task forces are an area where clearer understanding of intention and outcome will save everyone time and frustration. The most successful leaders of these task forces often are achievers, with a focus on completing their appointed task. Others on the task force can ensure thoroughness and diversity of thought and experience, but the leader needs to have a clear sense of purpose: to answer the question before us in the way most helpful to the board.

One interesting note: We almost always ask our CEOs and executive directors to do the style flexing—to be the complement that every board president needs. That’s a tall order given the diversity you may find among the presidents of bars and other organizations. It would do board leaders some good to develop some of that same expertise—to be the partner and collaborator who helps make your executive her very best. It’s that type of “servant leadership” mentality that I think the very best leaders possess.

BL: Often, before the new presidential term begins, the incoming president and the chief staff executive will talk through some preferences regarding things like the best times to communicate and whether in person, by phone, by email—or now, by Zoom or other video call. Do you think it would also be productive to talk about various personality traits and strengths, and the kind of support that may be most helpful?

MS: Yes, those are excellent examples of early planning and efforts to build a partnership with the ED/CEO. Knowing and working to support the strengths of the staff, other board leaders, and yourself allows a board president to be a great partner, and the flexible leader the organization might need at exactly that point.

The book Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie highlights the way teams of leaders can use their collective strengths most effectively. Using its foundation of 34 core strengths, the book (and accompanying online strengths test) provides some very interesting ideas about how to manage people with particular strengths, as well as how to be effective as a leader with particular strengths.

BL: Do you think it's important that bars and other organizations accommodate different personality types and styles when they're seeking new leaders and then onboarding them and helping them do their best? If, say, a bar realizes that it's had a string of more outspoken, hard-charging leaders and has perhaps been missing out on some real talent among its quieter members, how could it start to work on that?

MS: I think a balance of leaders spread throughout the leadership team is critical. If an organization finds the hard-charger in the leadership role consistently, it could look for other leaders on the executive committee to balance and complement those strengths—and at times, rein them in. More valuable than that, I think bars and associations would greatly benefit from greater recognition of the different strengths that are needed at different times during their organization’s life.

For example, strategic planning is a critical, periodic investment that all bars should make, led by a patient leader who is well versed in the process. Having a bright leader with ready answers before the questions get asked isn’t as helpful during planning. During the (hopefully) planned transitions of executives, leaders with experience in human resources and critical hires are invaluable. A major push to grow public support and understanding of the role of the bar needs a compelling and charismatic leader.  Increasing equity and inclusion may require someone very different. 

My first choice is to recruit diverse talent and advance leaders with the right strengths at the right time. My second choice (given less flexible leadership tracks) is to build diverse leadership teams that support any given president with complementary skills required of the team overall.

BL: Is there anything we haven’t discussed and that you think is important when it comes to personality types and styles and bar leadership?

MS: If I could change anything about how bar leadership works, I would do two things. First, I would shorten the pipeline of leadership ascension to provide more flexibility. More than knowing who the leaders will be in three years, I want to know we have the right leader today. Second, I would work to make the leader’s priorities in service to the strategic plan, rather than having a plan in service to the leader’s priorities. When new presidents come into office with ideas that will propel the impact of the strategic plan, these presidents reinforce the value of all leaders who came before them and not just their value alone.

Presidents too often act like sprinters. They may serve their bar better as members of a decades-long relay team.