September 01, 2018

Managing

Leadership from any Position: Follow Audie Murphy

Thomas C. Grella

This past April I had the opportunity to tour an area of France just west of Breisach, Germany, known as the Colmar Pocket. It was the scene of a brutal World War II winter, where Allied forces successfully resisted German occupation of a key strategic region. This tour included a visit to a memorial located at the end of a remote field, honoring one individual U.S. soldier, Audie Murphy. Murphy, though later to become a well-known actor, was at the time of enlistment a 17-year-old who had lied about his age to get into the military. He enlisted in the infantry, after he wasn’t allowed to join the marines or paratroopers because of his height. From the time he entered the war theater in 1943, Murphy proved himself a skilled marksman and soldier, and he received numerous promotions. In January 1945, under fierce attack, he ordered his troops to fall back in defense but alone mounted a burning tank, repelled the German onslaught and was seriously injured doing so. This allowed his own troops the time to counterattack and drive the Germans from the region. By the war’s end Murphy was the most decorated soldier of World War II.

As I learned of Murphy’s relatively obscure upbringing, yet leading to the greatest of success, I realized that though much different in circumstances, his life has much to teach us about leadership, including principles that lawyers can apply as they serve at their own firms.

Applicable Universal Principles

Two indisputable and universal principles of leadership came to mind as I learned more and more about Murphy. First, whether you are a private in the army or a first-day associate at a large law firm, influence is not about, or dependent upon, position. Extraordinary influence and success often come to those in seemingly low positions. Second, whether you are a short, weak teenager trying to enlist in the military or a young lawyer being given your first opportunity to lead a committee or practice group in your firm, never dwell on your weaknesses or limitations. Instead recognize your strengths, develop them and use them for the betterment of those within your sphere of influence.

Leading Without Position

Motivation.

Success and recognition were not the motivating forces that drove Murphy. It’s very clear that he was driven by a desire to serve—to serve his country in its fight against evil and to serve those whom he fought alongside. Those newly entering the legal profession—and perhaps those who have been in it for many years—should realize that recognition and success in your firm and the profession are not the goal but similarly come as the fruit of a life of service—service to those you work with and the clients you work for.

Innovation.

As Murphy hit the beaches in Sicily, entering combat for the first time, he quickly learned that each engagement in war brought with it unique circumstances, requiring new and potentially innovative responses. In the same way, the practice of law is constantly changing, and those who are newer and younger in the profession need to realize that they cannot simply rely on doing things the way older lawyers do them. As I have read about those lost in battle during the war, comfort and routine in many cases seemed to have been the catalyst of danger and tragedy. In the same manner, in a profession where routine and the comfortable ways of practice of the past seem safe, changing norms regarding competition and the areas of practice that are “protected” by rule or law for the licensed, make it clear that the order and certainty of the ways lawyers have historically practiced lead to a comfort that is conducive to inaction. The resulting stagnation is a dangerous place for practicing lawyers when the legal profession—or, better put, the legal services industry—is so rapidly changing.

My suggestion to all lawyers, except maybe those who are retiring in the next one or two months, is to be aware of, and receptive to, the changes that are happening. Understand that with change comes an unpredictability and discomfort. If you accept that, it will inevitability motivate you to take action, which will lead to growth in your professional practice of serving others. There’s no question that comfort is where we would really like to be. However, we experience personal and professional growth when we learn from, and work through, (1) external events outside of our control that impact our comfort, (2) our own mistakes and failures and (3) constructive criticism and guidance given to us by those within our circle of trusted advisors.

Creating a Supportive Environment

After entering combat for the first time, Murphy was quickly promoted and decorated for his success. For those in leadership positions at law firms, there’s much to learn from those who supported Murphy by promoting him and also from his conduct as a leader in the positions to which he was elevated during his two years of service.

Environment.

There’s no question that military procedure of the 1940s has little in common with the types of order that most 21st-century law firms desire to implement. At the same time a study of the Jan. 26, 1945, battle shows that even though Murphy had been ordered to hold his position, he ordered all of his troops (except himself) to fall back to safety in the forest, arguably bending the order given. Applying the same principle, it’s important for those who manage and lead law firms to create rules and procedures that maintain a certain expected standard of conduct while at the same time allowing for an environment that encourages innovative thought and action for the good of both the firm and its clients.

Restraint.

In law firms, as perhaps is also the case in the military from time to time, it seems human nature for a leader to want success so much that mistakes are intolerable. For lawyers who are not in leadership positions, it’s important to understand that learning from mistakes brings growth. For leaders it’s important not to micromanage but to instead exercise restraint, understanding that those you lead should be allowed to learn from their mistakes—and you can’t learn from mistakes if someone is always there to save you. Instead, serve as a guiding constructive leader who is available to help others through that learning process, nudging them in the right direction.

Culture.

Finally, it’s clear that Murphy had gained the respect of those he led before the difficult battle he endured on that bitter cold day in early 1945. Even though he ordered his troops to a defensive position in the forest, even when they wanted to stay and fight, they respected him enough to know that he had a plan not only for their survival but their success. He did this in a manner that every lawyer leader should adopt for his or her organization—by providing a culture that fosters teamwork and trust among leaders, and all of those led.

I have, once again, through my travels around the world discovered principles of law firm leadership and management in the most interesting of places.

Thomas C. Grella

Thomas C. Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He practices law with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a former managing partner, having served in that position for 12 years. tgrella@mwblawyers.com

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