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
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
Leading Without Position
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Finally, it’s clear that Murphy had gained the respect of those he led before the difficult battle he endured on that
I have, once again, through my travels around the world discovered principles of law firm leadership and management in the most interesting of places.