November 01, 2018

Leading Tomorrow: A Relational Paradigm

Leadership by gentle nudging works.

Stewart Levine

When asked to write this article, I began thinking about what leadership is and has been in general, and then more specifically in the legal profession. It’s an important topic to reflect on as we seem to be at a watershed moment in both the body politic of the U.S. and of the greater ABA. I see a similar dichotomy in both spheres. I want to be clear that this is not a political discussion; it’s one of style and temperament.

When we look at the current U.S. president, there is little question that he operates from what I would classify as an old leadership paradigm. He’s a guy who says, “I have the ideas and vision, I know how to fix what’s broken, fall in line behind me, follow my values and ideas because I know what’s right, honor me with your loyalty, and I will lead you to the Promised Land.” Kind of Teddy Roosevelt charging up a hill personified.

Compare him with his predecessor, a cerebral, gracious, inclusive, empowering learner—a completely different style.

I experienced a similar contrast years ago when I went to see his holiness the Dalai Lama around the time the U.S. was considering invading Iraq to confront the weapons of mass destruction situation. For want of a better term, his “opening act” was the actress Sharon Stone. I understand she has one of the highest IQs in the entertainment industry. That said, she came out as overly demanding—“You must do this, and you have to do that!” Because of the way she spoke, I found myself resisting and pushing back on her nonverbal messages, with a bit of “Who do you think you are telling me what to do?”

Compare that with the message and presence of the Dalai Lama. This is a man who has earned worldwide respect and credibility. He comes out and, in response to the same crisis Stone was speaking to, says in a most easy and matter-of-fact manner, “I’m not absolutely certain of what the right thing to do is, but here’s what I think ...”

It was such an amazing contrast in leadership styles, and one I will never forget for its impact and effectiveness.

A New Kind of Leadership

In the world we inhabit today, I think of a  good leader as someone who can get a group from A to the B of their choosing in a way that is heartfelt, fun and evokes both connection and contribution to a vision bigger than anyone might accomplish on their own. If forced to give it a name, I would call it “leadership by gently nudging.” It involves listening, suggesting, asking good questions and getting your own agenda out of the way. What I just described is, in many ways, the opposite of the traditional lawyer leader. But the times have changed with the shift in gender, generational and cultural differences, and I do not think we are turning back.

I’ll offer two examples of how this kind of leadership has worked for me. The first began about 20 years ago when I helped create a committed community of authors for the company that published my first two books. I was working with an accomplished group of author/consultants, people writing thoughtful books many would categorize as paradigm-shifting for the field they were writing about. That community has become a vibrant presence doing significant work and contributing greatly to new people who have the gravitas to think they have something important enough to say.

The second is a project just coming to an end. I volunteered to curate and edit a multi-author book about well-being for lawyers. The topic has become a hot one in legal circles given the recent report of a joint study by the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. The study revealed a very high level of suicide, substance abuse, divorce, stress, depression and unhappiness when comparing lawyers with the general population and other professions. The book is called The Best Lawyer You Can Be. It’s about maintaining physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and psychological health while practicing law. As you likely know, the context of actively practicing law is always pushing hard in the opposite direction of good health and wellness.

I’m still a bit baffled by how I was able to create alignment and get 27 (mostly) lawyers to produce quality chapters, each speaking to an important and mostly aspirational aspect of what makes lawyers have a sense of well-being. The book is opened and closed by the concept of becoming more relational versus transactional. That’s shorthand for seeing others in a subjective way, as if you will see them again, so it’s best and most satisfying to form lasting, respectful relationships. The opening chapter is filled with the results of the extensive empirical study that concludes that the happiest lawyers are the ones who pay attention to relationships with staff, colleagues, clients, adversaries, judges, court personnel and their families. It ends with a chapter describing how a lawyer’s day-to-day existence would be very different if he or she utilized the tools in the book and became more relational.

The content of the book includes yoga, meditation, diet, exercise, finance, coaching, marketing, pro bono representation and systemic changes, including adhering to the oath we all swore to. The early reviews have been a joy to receive, including a number from senior ABA leaders. I think the nudging is what did it—gently prodding and pushing the right buttons that influence and motivate others to action. It worked for me!

A Favorite Model

Jim Kouzes, a friend and professor at the Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business, has been studying leadership for over 40 years. I recently pulled out my copy of The Leadership Challenge that he inscribed in 1987. It’s now in its fifth edition as he and his partner, Barry Posner, keep adding to the depth and breadth of the book with more success stories from people who have followed what they have found are essential practices of good leaders, including:

  • Inspiring a shared vision.
  • Encouraging the heart.
  • Enabling others.
  • Modeling the way.

Generating human alignment is a critical aspect of leadership. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. Telling others what the desired end result is might generate compliance, but it doesn’t generate the commitment and accountability that are essential to success when the journey gets difficult.

Logic provides the authority that gives permission to act. Heartfelt emotion engages the passion that moves people to action. I remember being told as a young lawyer that my brief would give a judge the authority to rule in my favor, but what was essential to make the judge decide in my favor was a compelling emotional reason.

One of my favorite aphorisms about accomplishment is: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others. It’s so true. Good leaders know they can’t do it alone. They need both thinking and doing partners because all of us are definitely smarter than any one of us. To go far, it’s essential to enable others.

Monkey see, monkey do—we’ve all heard the phrase. If you are a credible leader, people in the firm will be looking to you for cues and modeling themselves after you. That’s why it’s critical for you to be aware that others are watching. Given that, why not just show them the way? I’m speaking mostly of not so much what you do but who you are and the presence you bring to the other human beings you are working with. It’s much better to be a human Being than a human Doing!

Aspects of Credibility

Being credible is a very important component of leadership. Credibility is about reputation and the walking promise that you are. When you walk through your sphere of influence and others look at you, what do you represent that they can rely on you for? It’s about integrity, reputation and inspiring belief. Someone who is credible walks his or her talk.

The flip side, though, is the need to be mindful. In an instant your life can change, and what you spent a lifetime cultivating can come tumbling down. Think of any of the myriad sports figures and politicians whose fortunes changed overnight following bad judgment or indiscretion. Need I say more?

Credibility consists of both character and how you communicate to others. The character aspects include trustworthiness, expertise, dynamism and similarity. To say it slightly differently: someone who keeps promises and has no hidden agendas—what you see is what you get; someone who may have an opinion but also knows all aspects of a situation, including all the competing considerations; someone who is lively and animated; and someone who is down-to-earth and easy to be around.

In Closing

The demographics of the world we live in have changed and will continue to do so.

When I entered law school in 1969, there were five women in a class of 130. The next year the class was 40 percent female. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg could not get a job when she graduated from law school. Millennials and the vagaries of a multigenerational workforce did not exist. The #MeToo movement was something very far off. There were no female ABA presidents. Did these changes in demographics play a role in the shifting paradigms of leadership, and do we have an opportunity to lead our profession into a new place, a place with a great level of well-being?

What do you think?

Stewart Levine

Stewart Levine is the founder of ResolutionWorks, a mediation, consulting, training and coaching organization. He is the curator of The Best Lawyer You Can Be and the author of the best sellers Getting to Resolution, The Book of Agreement and Collaboration 2.0. Long active in the ABA Law Practice Division, he is the current co-chair of the Diversity Committee and serves on the board of the Women Rainmakers Committee and the Publications Board. Email him.