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May 01, 2021 May/June 2021

Managing: Lessons From Our Deficit in National Leadership

Thomas C. Grella

My daughter Rebekah was in middle and high school during the first 10 years of this century. The two of us had two common interests—Wake Forest sports and a few TV reality shows. There was one show we watched where I had a purpose to our viewing pleasure.

Leadership being my passion, this show was a weekly example of how not to make leadership decisions. Leadership is about influence—not power, position or forcing others to act. True leadership is about serving others, without manipulation. This one reality show was instructional because the decision maker always rewarded those who best manipulated others and banished those whose purpose was teamwork or selfless service.

Leadership principles are universal. They apply anywhere individuals influence others, whether it be in politics, reality television, business organizations or law firms. From watching this one reality show years ago and my observation of failed high-profile leadership since, as well as my own experiences as a leader of my firm, there are a few lessons that might apply to lawyer leadership. 

Positional Authority

I have never been one to believe in the terms “leadership type” or “leadership style.” People put into positions of authority have differing life values, goals and personalities. In my view, these all go into what others observe as a type or style and how one relates to others in the organization. One lesson I have learned is that there are two types of positional authority that simply do not work well for any organization, whether it be in govern­ment, business or a law firm.

Unpredictable leader.

This is a leader who is either inconsis­tent in decision making (such as enforcing rules and procedures against some but not others), tends toward making directional changes without follow through (announcing new initiatives on a whim and changing direc­tion frequently), or withholds information from others due to lack of trust (information about mission, vision or the financial position of the firm). Leaders who are unpredictable should expect that firm members will be hesitant in their actions and will be risk averse. For those who believe they might need to work on leadership predictability, consider two questions: Am I being consistent to those led? Am I being transparent to followers?

Controlling leader.

Leadership is influence. Controlling leaders, however, typically use force or requirement, influencing action instead of heart. In the short term, this type of leader can realize results by gaining compliance instead of true commit­ment. Settling for short-term results instead of long-term rela­tionships can have devastating results. We have seen this nation­ally as those with important but subordinate rank achieve results but are totally ignored, rejected and sometimes publicly shamed, with respect to the advice they give to their controlling leader, only to quit and write tell-all books. For law firm leaders, short-term financial results may be achieved, but culture will suffer, commitment will not be achieved in those being led, and many may leave for the perceived greener pasture of another law firm. The only way to know if you are too domineering or controlling is to ask questions of those led. In our firm we conduct 360-degree evaluations, using an outside consultant to gather surveys. If as a leader one struggles in this area, ask questions of others in the organization, and focus on listening to their responses. It is also important to work on not dictating to others, but instead helping lead them to make appropriate decisions on their own and being supportive once decisions are made.

Handling Criticism

Criticism is, without exception, a part of leadership. If you are in a position of leadership, you will be criticized, period. Leaders may be criticized for many things: motives, actions taken, actions not taken, consistency, lack of vision or confidence, to name just a few. As we have seen nationally, criticism, justi­fied or not, increases as the position of the leader elevates. An appropriate response to criticism can be a key to one’s ability to influence an organization. Just as we have learned it is unhelpful to tweet a response to the world every time a negative opinion is cast, within a law firm it is just as inappropriate to publicly rebuke criticism or publish a dissenting view. Since criticism will exist, law firm leaders must learn how to lead and succeed through it. With some planning for the inevitable (instead of awaiting the possible onslaught or deciding to simply ignore), a leader can minimize the extent of the inescapable.

The key for leaders in dealing with and minimizing criti­cism is creation of a culture of positivity in the organization. It starts with the leader and self-analysis. Some criticism will be received privately and other publicly. Regardless, when crit­icism comes, creating a positive culture means a commitment to: (1) only offering positive feedback or constructive critique and (2) never publicly responding by counter criticism. Leaders must be wise about how they act and what they say. Improper or inconsistent action by a leader can, in minutes, kill a culture that has taken years to develop. Commitment to a life of proper and appropriate conduct is half the battle.

It is also critical that leaders establish mechanisms in the firm that provide opportunities to followers: (1) to obtain and give feedback on a regular basis and through appropriate means; (2) regardless of position, to themselves (including nonlawyers) have leadership roles that meaningfully help the firm achieve success; and (3) to receive some response informally, appropri­ately and privately to their suggestions and criticisms, regard­less of how they initially expressed themselves.

Admitting and Learning From Mistakes and Failure

In the words of Sophocles: “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” There is no doubt that we have recently seen examples of this; but if I am honest with myself, many times in my own leadership experience I have failed to learn from mistakes and failures by not seeing opportunity for development and growth. If I am honest as well, Sophocles was right; it was due to pride.

Mistakes and failures can only be turned into a positive when a leader recognizes two things. First, a clear idea of what constitutes success. In the recent past we have heard all about “winning,” but I wonder if the definition has been skewed not only for the country, but also in law firms. Historically, law firms have defined winning or success in financial terms, usually profit per partner. For a law firm whose leaders desire to have the organization outlast the lives of those presently on the team, this seems shortsighted. An accurate definition will be tied to long-term vision and desired culture. In some law firms, this will still be tied to short-term production. If so, however, these firms may not have long vision staying power. Second, even if you know how to define success, what we have learned nationally is that leaders must be willing to admit mistakes and failures if they want to learn from them. It took me years to learn this. As we have seen, some people with significant posi­tions fail to ever learn this.

As a final thought, with so many examples of how public figures have dealt with position and authority, self-examination in the above areas might be timely. Certainly, leaders can ask themselves how they handle the power they have and the crit­icism they receive. Above all else, however, the lesson I have learned is that to really succeed in the goal of providing selfless leadership to my firm, I must first recognize, admit to, learn from and grow through my mistakes and failure.

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. [email protected]

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