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Business Law Today

May 2022

Lawyers as Leaders: Lessons from Legendary Professors

George John Siedel


  • Leadership comes into play for lawyers in two ways: (1) they exercise leadership skills, including people skills, in law practice when working with clients and colleagues; and (2) they are tapped for leadership positions in business and nonprofit organizations.
  • As leaders, lawyers often play a teaching role. Thus, lawyers can learn a lot about teaching from award-winning business school professors.
  • Legendary teachers move beyond “lean back” teaching, i.e., the traditional lecture method, and engage in “lean forward” teaching, i.e., an active-learning model.
  • Three lessons that can be learned from legendary professors to lean forward include using stories, balancing the big picture with simplification, and being yourself.
Lawyers as Leaders: Lessons from Legendary Professors

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Lawyers wear two types of leadership hats. First, they often exercise leadership skills, including people skills, in law practice when working with clients and colleagues. As noted in the 2017 report “Defining Key Competencies for Business Lawyers,” prepared by a task force of the ABA Business Law Section’s Business Law Education Committee, “the lawyers who become the managing partners and some of the best client rainmakers are those with excellent people skills—usually equaling and sometimes surpassing their technical skills.”

Second, lawyers are often tapped for leadership positions in business and nonprofit organizations. Given the skill set necessary for the practice of law, the increasing number of leaders holding JD degrees in large companies is not surprising. An empirical study of Fortune 50 companies (forthcoming in the Tulane Law Review) concluded that over the past three decades, the number of senior executives holding JD degrees increased by eighty-nine percent!

Using leadership skills in a law firm and other organizations often requires lawyers to play a teaching role. For example, the task force report noted that even in a one-time transaction, “a good business lawyer will be a useful resource in teaching the client about options and alternatives.” More generally, management experts have concluded that the ability to teach is an attribute of successful leadership. The title of a 2018 Harvard Business Review article by Sydney Finkelstein says it all: “The Best Leaders Are Great Teachers.” After studying world-class leaders for over a decade, he concluded, “If you’re not teaching, you’re not really leading.”

What can lawyers learn about teaching from award-winning business school professors? I considered this question when conducting field research for Seven Essentials for Business Success: Lessons from Legendary Professors (Routledge, 2022). The book describes the methods used by seven MBA teaching legends, each representing a different business function (including the legal function, with a section on the role of Apple’s general counsel as a member of the senior leadership team).

In addition to their MBA teaching, these professors are involved in projects that have a positive impact on organizations and society. For example, University of Chicago Professor Steven Kaplan, who teaches “Corporate and Entrepreneurial Finance” at the University of Chicago Law School in addition to his MBA teaching, started a new venture program that has resulted in the formation of more than 370 companies, the creation of thousands of jobs, $1.2 billion in funds raised, and $8.5 billion in mergers and exits.

Through interviews and in-class observations of these high-impact professors, I discovered they use a variety of teaching practices that enable them to move beyond what Harvard strategy professor Jan Rivkin calls “lean back” teaching—the traditional lecture in which students are passive recipients of information. He contrasts this approach with a “lean forward” model where learners are actively engaged in the learning process.

In a law firm or business setting, “lean forward” teaching reshapes a traditional presentation or meeting to an active learning experience. Lawyers who embrace the lean forward model have an opportunity to encourage discussions about new opportunities as well as future challenges faced by their clients and firms.

The legendary professors I studied use a number of practices that lawyers can adopt to encourage clients and colleagues to lean forward. Here are three examples.

Use stories. You can enhance the learning experience through frequent use of stories. The professors emphasize this aspect of the teaching process. The book describes a disciplined approach Northwestern marketing professor Florian Zettelmeyer learned when working for McKinsey. As he emphasized in a commencement address: “Great communication is always built around a story…. I literally mean that everything you communicate has to take the form of a story. Every presentation, every speech, every memo, every pitch you make has to be a story in which your key ideas are embedded.”

Because Stanford accounting professor Charles Lee feels that stories bring concepts to life, he devotes lots of time to finding good illustrations. In his words, “I lovingly collect them.” Professor Richard Shell, who teaches the business law core course at Wharton, adds that “nobody learns anything except on the foundation of what they already know. So your selection of examples, images, stories, and metaphors is crucial.”

The professors often use examples to emphasize the practical value of their teaching. When University of Michigan management professor Gretchen Spreitzer discusses the power of gratitude in the workplace, she introduces a tool called a gratitude journal. To illustrate, she describes a retreat her colleagues conducted for the university’s basketball players at the beginning of a season in which the team reached the national championship game. Following the retreat, coach John Beilein decided to keep a gratitude journal, and she shows her class a film clip of him expressing gratitude to the team and staff.

Balance the big picture with simplification. Your ability to achieve an appropriate balance between the big picture and details is an important aspect of teaching in a law firm or as a leader in a company setting. The seven professors frequently remind students of the big picture—their overarching goal and why it is important.

They complement the big picture with evidence-based details. Their challenge, familiar to lawyers attempting to explain complex legal requirements to clients, is to simplify the details enough to make them digestible. MIT operations professor Georgia Perakis teaches a course titled “Data, Models, and Decisions” that is considered one of the most rigorous courses in the MIT Executive MBA program. Given the complexity of the material, her goal is “to try to see how I can go from the complex model to a simple model. If it’s too simple, I will not capture the real complex problem, so I have to find where to be in the middle.” Stanford’s Professor Lee cited Oliver Wendell Holmes, who referred to this goal as “simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity.” “This is a simplicity,” Lee explained, “that arises from understanding the material so completely that you are able to simplify it for others to learn.”

Be yourself. Being yourself is perhaps the most important lesson from the professors because it provides the authenticity necessary to become a successful leader and teacher. According to profound educator Parker Palmer in his essay “The Heart of a Teacher,” this is the “secret hidden in plain sight: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (his emphasis). Two of the professors received inspiration from Steve Jobs, who noted that “your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life…. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart.”

The ability to be yourself, combined with other practices used by legendary professors, enables you to exercise the teaching skills that are necessary for effective leadership in your law practice and when leading other organizations. In the words of noted Harvard Business School professor Chris Christensen, your teaching experience “allows you to combine the momentary and the infinite” by addressing immediate concerns while also laying a foundation for the future.