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November/December 2021

Leaders Bring the Weather

How to consciously create leadership qualities that spur a positive culture.

Pamela A. Hernandez
It has been said, “Leaders bring the weather.” That weather can be creative and positive or reactive and negative depending on the leaders.

It has been said, “Leaders bring the weather.” That weather can be creative and positive or reactive and negative depending on the leaders.

via Neoleo / iStock / Getty Images Plus

397 million. That’s the number of responses Google offers up, in less than one second, when you search for “improving company culture.” It’s obviously a hot topic, but why? The answers lie within those millions of results that show the positive business implications and competitive advantage for organizations with healthy cultures. How a healthy culture is defined is also widely researched. Six elements of workplace culture that are often mentioned:

  1. Purpose.
  2. Leadership.
  3. Appreciation.
  4. Well-being.
  5. Opportunity.
  6. Success.

While this list is a good start, I like to elevate “leadership” higher, defining it in a manner that overarches these six elements. Leadership can be better characterized in terms of the cultural outcomes of leadership. Leaders create and reinforce culture. It has been said, “Leaders bring the weather.” That weather can be creative and positive or reactive and negative depending on the leaders.

Profiles of Effective Leaders

The Leadership Circle, a leadership consultancy, offers a comprehensive Leadership Circle Profile (LCP), which has been completed by more than 2.5 million people worldwide. The organization tapped 486 leaders to be part of a study that correlates business performance with leadership effectiveness. It used a business performance index consisting of six categories: sales/revenue, market share, profitability/ROI, quality of products and services, new product development and overall performance.

The study also included the following statements on the leadership effectiveness scale:

  • I am satisfied with the quality of leadership that this leader provides.
  • This leader is the kind of leader that others should aspire to become.
  • This leader is an example of an ideal leader.
  • This leader’s leadership helps this organization to thrive.
  • Overall, this leader provides very effective leadership.

The results clearly showed the correlation between business performance and leadership effectiveness, and reflect the tangible impact leadership has on business and culture. But how does it work when you zoom in and focus on one law firm or one leader where transformative change is desired?

The starting point is the leader’s “inner game.”

Leadership: The Inner and Outer Game

Too often, leadership development focuses solely on a leader’s “outer” game—topics like the 10 steps to delegation, the five strategies for dealing with difficult employees and so on. While these steps and strategies can be helpful, they amount to mere “tips” unless the leader’s inner game, their mindset, is simultaneously addressed.

Consider delegation as an example. Many lawyers admit that they only delegate parts of the project instead of a whole project, constantly check up on simple tasks to make sure the other person stays on track and often find it easier to do something themselves than to delegate.

Delegation tips will provide strategies to delegate more effectively, but such tips don’t tackle the real question of why you are uncomfortable with delegation. Instead, consider questions like: “What would it look like if you delegated an entire project and didn’t micromanage the person you delegated to?” or, “What if the project is not done exactly as you would have done it but has the same results?”

Leaders often respond to these questions with concerns about uncertainty or being blamed if things go poorly. Many lawyers also have deep-seated fears about delegating. That’s where the real leadership development work happens. When we help leaders examine and challenge their deeply held (often unconscious) beliefs and assumptions, then delegation becomes doable.

Where Do These Deeply Held Assumptions Come From? (Or, How Life Rafts Can Become Anchors)

We can become overly reliant on skills and characteristics that have helped us survive and thrive. There’s an old fable that goes like this:

A man on an important journey comes to a raging river. There’s no way to cross. Fortunately, he spots a raft on the bank and uses it to reach the other side. The raft was so helpful the man doesn’t want to put it down. He carries it on his back as he continues his journey. He loves his raft. It got him this far. But then, he comes to a mountain. The raft weighs him down, but how could he relinquish it?

We learned behaviors in our early years, like following rules or being nice and helpful, that yielded positive results. We were liked and belonged. That’s a gift until it becomes a life raft that we use all the time. It’s an anchor when it becomes our default reaction to any difficult situation. It literally prevents forward movement. There will come a time when we must take an action that others won’t like. If being liked and belonging is overly important to us, we may delay or avoid making difficult or unpopular decisions. Life rafts come in many different forms and are often referred to as reactive tendencies or defaults.

These reactive tendencies generally fall into one of three categories:

1. Need to Control

Many leaders achieve success by pursuing continuous improvement, setting high standards, influencing others, speaking their opinion however controversial, taking charge and jumping into action. All these characteristics can result in success and promotions.

Taken too far, a need to control can result in being overly aggressive, discounting or ignoring negative feedback, believing one’s own “press,” demanding flawless performance of oneself and others, overlooking others’ aspirations and being overly competitive—seeing everything in terms of winning and losing.

2. Need to Protect Oneself

People who have self-doubt often over-compensate by maintaining distance from situations and people. They feel they bring value by being smarter than others, finding fault and not getting emotionally involved. They often bring value by seeing issues that others miss and can offer a great deal of wisdom.

But this need to protect oneself can also result in appearing cold, aloof or uncaring; distancing others by one’s own judgments; adopting a posture of being superior, smarter or better; holding back one’s own creative expression; and avoiding risk taking.

3. Need to Be Liked

Many people go far in their careers by being easy to work with and helpful. They succeed by recognizing and responding to the needs of others, being reliable, sensing others’ emotions, maintaining loyalty, upholding traditions, being easy to talk to and serving others.

But if this need is taken too far, it can result in being nonassertive and passive, playing by the rules, acting to fit in, denying one’s own aspirations, frequently seeking advice from another person before making decisions, avoiding risk by not advocating for one’s personal opinions and not engaging in conflict or expressing disagreement indirectly by being passive-aggressive.

If you don’t see it, it will manage you. If you do see it, you can manage it.

Fortunately, leaders can regain the gift of their strengths and avoid the danger of their overuse through activities that promote self-awareness and change their mindset from one of threat avoidance to outcome creation.

The Leadership Circle Profile requires leaders to rate themselves based on several leadership competencies and reactive tendencies. Their colleagues, bosses and direct reports rate them also. If there is more than a 20-percent discrepancy in any rating, there’s a disconnect between the leader’s intentions and the experience of those who work with that person.

From my experience, typical written comments include:

  • “She needs to learn to trust her people; she micromanages everything.”
  • “He always has to be the smartest person in the room. He criticizes every idea that’s not his own.”
  • “She’s so worried about what other people think of her that she won’t make hard decisions.
  • “They’re a great person; I’m just afraid they’re going to burn out—they take on way too much.”

When a leader receives this feedback, there is a predictable pattern of response: surprise/shock, confusion/anger, rationalization/rejection, acceptance, and ultimately focus and integration.

Leaders who have taken the profile should not do anything with the results for a couple of weeks. They should allow time to get past the surprise and shock. Then, valuable work can be accomplished.

Often the behaviors called out in the survey are based on deep underlying beliefs and assumptions about the way the world works. When the leader can identify and examine these beliefs, they often realize that there are other ways of interacting, and leaders can become more intentional.

Characteristics of the Most Effective Leaders

The Leadership Circle Profile includes an area for written comments. The company did a deep dive into the written comments on the profile and correlated the following attributes to effective leaders and ineffective leaders. The biggest insight is that effective leaders can build other leaders. Less effective leaders may be technically brilliant, but their leadership can’t scale.

Thematic strengths of effective leaders include characteristics such as strong people skills, vision, team building, being personable and approachable, leading by example, having passion and drive, being a good listener, developing people, empowering people and having a positive attitude. Ineffective leaders typically have liabilities such as an ineffective interaction style, inability to be a team player, failing to fully develop a team, being overly demanding, micromanaging, not holding the team accountable, being inattentive or a poor listener, being too self-centric, lacking emotional control or being impatient.

The other takeaway is that the difference between effective leaders and ineffective leaders boils down to relationship skills. Effective leaders aren’t intellectually smarter than ineffective leaders, but they’re smarter about people, relationships and motivation. If you work with others, these skills are important for you. If you are responsible for producing results, these skills are important for you. And these skills can be learned.

Considerations for Lawyers and Their Firms

If it ever crossed your mind that lawyers are not, technically speaking, “leaders,” consider the challenge of keeping the business going, clients happy, and employees and colleagues motivated during an unprecedented pandemic. Lawyers at all levels lead in some manner. Leadership can be defined as “creating outcomes that matter.” And lawyers are all about creating outcomes—for their clients, for their firms, for themselves and for those they mentor.

As law firms begin to create their post-pandemic new normal, the time is ideal to take a fresh look at your company’s culture with an eye toward igniting (or reigniting) the best of what it can be going forward. This means taking a hard look at the gap between what you want your culture to be and what it is. This is a starting point for developing leaders and cultures unencumbered by outdated “life rafts” and immobilizing anchors.

Pamela A. Hernandez

Founder & CEO

Pamela A. Hernandez is the founder and CEO of The Right Reflection, a coaching firm specializing in helping leaders achieve their highest potential. Her coaching clients become great people leaders and grow as individuals through a process of transformational self-discovery that empowers them to build authentic and intentional leadership styles.
[email protected]

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