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November/December 2021

Developing Leaders: An Anecdotal Discussion

Cultivate new leaders by helping them find their most effective style.

Lance G. Johnson
We discuss the various traits of leadership among lawyers and how they are developed within their firm, whether past or present.

We discuss the various traits of leadership among lawyers and how they are developed within their firm, whether past or present.

via Getty Images / The Image Bank

Leadership comes in so many forms, circumstances and styles. I celebrate the diversity that is leadership and the various styles of leadership. The trick, however, is trying to match one’s leadership style and philosophy with the right set of co-workers. In that vein, I have asked some of my colleagues and fellow board members on this magazine to help me suss out the various traits of leadership among lawyers and how they are developed within their firm, whether past or present. I’ve also provided my own thoughts on the issues.

Let me introduce our panel:

Courtney Ward-Reichard is knowledge management and information research counsel at Nilan Johnson Lewis in Minneapolis, vice chair of the Law Practice editorial board and chair of the Women Rainmakers Committee. Personal leadership style: “Collaborative. I seek consensus in every group I lead, whether it is a nonprofit organization board, bar committee or client team.”

Dave Christensen is the co-chair of the Mechanical Practice and Additive Manufacturing Practice Groups at Cantor Colburn in Hartford, Connecticut. He is active on the Law Practice board and was recently on the issue team for the Management issue. Personal leadership style: “Consensus building.”

Roberta Tepper is the chief member services officer of the State Bar of Arizona in Phoenix. She is currently the features editor for this mag- azine. Personal leadership style: “I would like to think that my leadership style, which is still evolving, is a combination of leadership by example/inspiration and leadership by collaboration.”

John D. Bowers is the chief executive officer at Vandenack Weaver in Omaha, Nebraska. He also serves as executive director of the Tennessee Intellectual Property Law Association. Personal leadership style: “Surround yourself with smart people who have integrity. Leaders who don’t consistently do the right thing when nobody is watching inevitably impede the organization in such a way that every- one sees it. The behavior and unnecessary risk is not always evident externally but within the practice, everyone knows it whether explicitly or intuitively.” 

LP: Were you sufficiently mentored into leadership? If not, how would you change that for others? If so, what helped the most? 

Christensen: Mentoring? No, not really. I had some excellent managers when I was in-house at General Electric whom I have tried to emulate, but it wasn’t a mentorship situation. I recently read a book by Scott O’Neil called Be Where Your Feet Are where he talks about there being a point in your career where you need to focus on helping others to be the best they can be, rather than on your own achievements. This is really difficult in a firm environment, particularly where the number of hours billed is the primary measure. You can’t bill a client (usually) for helping others, only for work product you are producing. This is one of the reasons I think diversity and inclusion is difficult in firms. The business model dictates that you focus on your client and their work and not on what is happening with other people.

Tepper: Mentoring in leadership has come from a variety of individuals over time at my “day jobs” but also from organizations in which I have become involved, including the Arizona Women Lawyers Association and the Law Practice Division. I have encountered leaders who have gone out of their way to provide opportunities for me to grow and coaching to help me succeed; colleagues who have supported my fledgling leadership attempts, helped me learn leadership skills and have supported my path; and those who I have managed, supervised and led in their feedback both positive and negative. And importantly, in addition to mentors, I have been fortunate to find champions who have enabled my path in ways I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking. I hope to always be mindful to pay those gifts forward to benefit others in the same way.

Bowers: Throughout my life, I have had a host of informal mentors, and a couple formal ones, who served as sounding boards during years of progressively consequential leadership roles. What I love the most about each is their unselfish willingness to be available and listen, especially when they personally have nothing to gain but to see me succeed. It is my responsibility to make them proud. My one certainty is that I haven’t thanked them all yet or enough.

What has always helped the most is when people have been honest, and perhaps even painfully blunt, about my failures. In my immaturity, I didn’t always love this accountability but, as I’ve gained time and lost hair, I appreciate the sincere intentionality that drove these patient people. I remain a work in progress. As such I owe it to others, whether they ask for my opinion or not, to give of my time and knowledge with at least as much grace and honesty.

Johnson: The mentoring I received was informal and learned by observation more than discussion. For example, when I worked for the government in an agency not known for its strong leaders, my supervisor was a quiet guy who was brilliant in the applicable law, used his management authority with a light touch geared to persuade by reason more than coerce by demand and who saw his job as one of protecting his people from the shifting and often inexplicable demands of his supervisors. The professionals he supervised appreciated his efforts and were very comfortable having him in charge. We trusted that he was looking out for us to the extent that he could.

A later informal mentor demonstrated leadership to me by giving me his limited time in a busy practice, productive one- on-one training and a willingness to let me take the lead on portions of what for me was a high-profile case in a midsize firm. He kept an open mind and demonstrated to me a willingness to let me follow his lead in the ways I felt most comfortable.

I have never forgotten the lessons of these mentors and have returned to those lessons frequently when I was in a firm and trying to nurture younger talent to become the sort of professional who would succeed in the firm and in personal life.

LP: How do you define success? What have you had to overcome to get where you are?

Tepper: My definition of success has changed over time. As a newer lawyer, success was more “other”-defined, as one of the sole measures was whether I had gained positive feedback from others. As I’ve progressed in my career, I find that while some external measures of success are still important, it’s my internal measure of success that I look to in any self-evaluation. Have I accomplished something that has served others? Have I led others to advance on their own journey? Will I leave the world a better place?

Bowers: Dr. Milt Lowder of Amplos says that, “Success is worthy pursuit of a worthy goal.” I love both “worthies” as qualifying adjective: activity will never equal productivity. Success for me has always been measurable wins—both large and small—that have often followed times when I failed miserably. Not simply day-to-day losses; they are the times when you must get back up, dust yourself off and just keep walking. These failures are times when I’ve let someone or the whole team down as well as moments (following enough blows with a 2 x 4) when I have learned the most. Thus, success is learning from failure.

Ward-Reichard: My family teases me by saying that I end up leading most of the groups or boards I join, but I admit they are mostly right. It has some- times taken perseverance and breaking into groups slowly but surely, through hard work and simply showing up.

Of all my leadership roles, I am most proud of serving as president of the more than 8,500-member Hennepin County Bar Association in 2010-11. As a young associate, I was appointed to the role as chair of the committee that published the monthly bar magazine. I excitedly told my boss and mentor, and his response was, “That’s great; when are you going to be president?” Until he said those words, it had never occurred to me that I could reach that level of leadership. It took 13 years, but I did achieve that goal.

Johnson: To me, success is that personal feeling of being intellectually engaged in a project that is meaningful to my client who is willing to pay me to do things that I love doing. These circumstances tend to lead to repeat business where I can keep doing these really great projects.

It took me some time and lots of—I won’t say “failures” because that label has such a negative connotation—but let’s say “not effective” pitches before I started to find a theme and delivery that resonated with the prospect. I had to make a number of presentations before I started to figure out how my pitch for services would match how the prospect perceived what I could do and offer. I relied on a variety of sources to gain that information.

The best information I ever learned about becoming professionally successful in a small to midsize firm came from a brainstorming session with a former colleague. We spent a couple of hours looking hard at our firm generally and the professionals of our group in particular to gain an understanding of how we were likely perceived by the prospective clients we wanted to attract. That process was eye-opening and ultimately gave me a new perspective on the efficiencies that could be gained by the proper use of technology for my practice as well as both the message and delivery platforms that would credibly support the take- away I wanted them to have. Getting this figured out was the hardest thing I ever did—figuring out exactly how to act on it was the second hardest. 

LP: Is the “feminine” leadership style a myth, or are female leaders really more inclusive and collaborative? 

Ward-Reichard: In my experience, there is a “feminine” leadership style that I associate with being more inclusive of individual needs and abilities, seeking consensus, leading by example and giving correction in a kind, non-punishing way. But, it is a myth that the “feminine” leadership style is exclusively employed by individuals who identify as female. I have worked with many male leaders who exhibit these types of leadership traits, which I believe ultimately lead to a happier and more productive team.

Have I seen or experienced negative stereotypes? Absolutely. Research shows that women are viewed less favorably when exhibiting more “masculine” leadership traits. I have personally been criticized for being outspoken in meetings and refusing to go along with the majority—criticisms not made about men in the same setting. It is difficult to over- come these types of double standards. I have been fortunate that most organizations and groups have welcomed my willingness to be outspoken and direct.

Tepper: It would be very satisfying for me to be able to report that in my experience female leaders are always more inclusive, supportive and collaborative, but in my legal career I have encountered female leaders who inspired and supported but also those who have provided examples of how not to lead. To classify a leadership style by “feminine” or “masculine” is, like many labels, a vast oversimplification.

Christensen: This is a difficult question to answer as I’ve seen a vast spectrum of attributes in both men and women leaders. However, that being said, I have found women to be more likely to listen (and actively listen) to a variety of viewpoints prior to making decisions.

Bowers: Stereotypes absolutely still attach to female leaders. In point of fact, there is really no equivalent masculine word in English for “b-tch,” which—in a deeply unfair way—gets widely used to describe most any strong woman leader. The double standard is that men who exhibit the exact same behaviors in very similar circumstances are consistently described as “too aggressive” or even “abusive” but still not nearly as derogatory.

Johnson: I think the label is a myth based on a stereotype that is positive, not negative. I have worked with bright, collaboration-oriented team leaders who are female as well as male. I have also been in groups where an ineffective, self-oriented leader (male and female) failed to get anything meaningful accomplished and generally succeeded only in discord. The leaders I have admired and enjoyed working with have used active listening and true collaborative input from all members to arrive at a decision that presents the best option among those available. Sometimes, that decision-making process is fast. At other times, not so much, regardless of the gender of the leader.

Bowers: The feminine leadership style is very real and shouldn’t be considered strategies of which only women are more capable. While empathy, teamwork and communication may exhibit more naturally among women leaders, some male leaders have always been strong in some or all of these areas. The underlying lesson for men in leadership—lest they miss it—is to include and draw out as many, even potentially oppositional, perspectives on teams as is possible.

Of course, any leader must routinely listen to perspectives first and then, based on conclusions drawn, be teach- able enough to change course or confident enough to stay the course. 

LP: What are the top three lessons that you learned and use regularly from leaders you’ve known? 

Christensen: Listen to the people you manage and understand what they want to accomplish, even when they aren’t in line with your goals. The best manager I ever had helped me get a new position outside of his organization. I’ve had three paralegals get promoted into better positions, even though it made my life more difficult.

Build consensus among partners on plans prior to having a partners meeting. The meeting is then used to work out details rather than argue about the goal. This leads to more long-term stability.

Don’t be afraid to be decisive and take risks. Business moves fast, and sometimes you have to make a decision based on the available information. You can’t always wait until you have all the information.

Bowers: Create a safe environment to fail forward. Too many lawyers insist upon constant and permanent perfection; beyond being utterly impossible, it is the best-celebrated lie in the legal industry. Leaders that people will follow get busy building teams that make mis- takes, which are then used as stepping stones for learnings and improvement.

Build teams that challenge each member. Too many teams—and practice management groups—integrate “silent” members who simply don’t have a preference. Similar to marriages bound to fail because someone just isn’t being honest, disinterested and nonparticipative members of any team must be jettisoned early and often for the good of the whole.

Commit to continuous improvement. If you haven’t failed lately and your practice is stagnating, whether in terms of financial performance or the nature of your work, it may be time to question some of the fundamental ingredients that have led to success in years past. Though it may take some time to work toward this reinvention as a law practice, when was the last time you challenged yourself?

Culture is determined by what leaders will tolerate. Law practices must be very special places since so many firms have people who refuse to cooperate with each other. In fact, internal conflict mediated by an invested and empathetic leader can lead to transformative relationships. Conversely, the conflict averse leader spins their wheels trying to satiate each wounded ego, which only makes personal barriers permissible and perfects competing silos.

Johnson: For me, the number one lesson I learned is that I do not know and cannot know every possible solution to a situation. Watching effective leaders canvass the group for possible solutions made that abundantly clear. A real leader has to appreciate that they need help to define a better universe of the possible solutions. Dictatorial styles that presume the leader knows all and the members nothing does not make me keen to attend meetings or carry out the dictated projects.

The second lesson is that disruptors, malcontents and naysayers need to be addressed or the group fails for want of effective leadership. It’s no surprise that meetings cannot occur effectively with members who want to control the con- versation, detract from any idea that is not their own or hold a pocket veto of any proposal without making a constructive counterproposal. Such folks are not helpful and, if not addressed, the group members will lack confidence that the named leader can be effective. Lesson 2a: The group must trust that you’ll have their backs to hold constructive meetings that are not a waste of time.

The third lesson echoes the need for a culture of support for would-be leaders. The organization must ultimately back up efforts to corral and correct the naysayers. The group members will surely find out that their named leader got no support from the more senior leaders. (Shocker—folks in firms talk and share juicy news.) News will get around quickly that one or more senior partners shot down a junior partner’s efforts on a project of general benefit, which will reflect badly on the firm, lower morale and send a clear message that new ideas are not welcome. Under such a climate, would you stay?

Tepper: It’s hard to distill what I’ve learned into just three lessons, but here goes. First, don’t assume I know what is important to those you aspire to lead or serve; make sure to ask, and be open to the fact that my preconceived notions may not align with the reality of others. The second part of that first lesson is that being a leader doesn’t mean that I have all the answers, nor should I expect that I do. What leadership does, though, is provide the opportunity to facilitate the creation of answers.

Second, always remember that a high tide raises all ships. Success should never be measured by whether I, alone, succeed but rather by whether every- one involved in the team has succeeded. Part of this relates to Lance’s point about dealing with—well, let’s just call them naysayers—and how to most effectively deal with that negative energy; the other part is to support and encourage those who are committed to the success of the endeavor, whatever that may be.

Finally, and thank you, John, for saying it so well, we need to have a safe environment where it is okay to try, yet fail, and learn from those mistakes. I have always learned from failures or less-successful attempts; learning is lifelong, and leaders must always remember that they will never be done doing so or helping others on that same path.

Johnson: I want to thank our panelists for their candid contributions. Their insights and past experiences show us a variety of ways that lawyers and nonlawyers working with lawyers can develop their leadership style and skills.

Lance G. Johnson


Lance G. Johnson is the founder of Johnson Legal PLLC and specializes in all things IP. He is also the current editor-in-chief of the Law Practice magazine. [email protected]

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