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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Perspectives: You Know Good Leadership When You See It

Stephen E Embry


  • Good leadership. It’s tough to define and describe, but we all know it when we see it.
Perspectives: You Know Good Leadership When You See It
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Good leadership. It’s tough to define and describe, but we all know it when we see it. This edition of Law Practice magazine deals with leadership in the legal ecosystem: What makes a good leader, how can you become one and how can you lead to achieve a better result? But good leadership does not just apply in the workplace. Like it or not, we are all called upon to be leaders at some point, whether it’s at work or at home.

I’m honored to be this year’s chair of the Law Practice Division (LP), a diverse group of some 20,000 members. As such, I am called to leadership and, like you, will always have more to learn.

As your chair, I have been reflecting on what makes a good and effective leader and the challenges and opportunities the year ahead poses for the leadership team.

I decided to ask the last three chairs of LP for their thoughts on leadership and what they each learned as chair. And I have my own thoughts to add as well. Here are our collective views.

Earn the Trust of Those You Lead.

Heidi A. Barcus, our immediate past chair, put it well when I asked her what she had learned about leadership: “I learned that to lead you must have the trust of the members. I tried to be someone the members could talk to ‘in confidence.’”

You obviously can’t lead if people don’t trust you. But trust is something to be earned—by working hard to see others’ viewpoints, by trying hard to be empathic always and everywhere, and by always keeping the goal of building trust front and center.

It’s All About Relationships. And Clearly Articulating A Vision.

Rodney Dowell, LP chair for the bar year 2019–2020, told me: “Leadership in a volunteer organization depends on building relationships, seeking to identify common goals and communicating relentlessly on implementing the shared vision.”

Building relationships goes hand in hand with earning trust, of course. But Rodney hits one other key point: A good leader identifies the common goals and then consistently articulates those to the whole team. Good leaders doggedly communicate a shared vision and use that vision as a guiding star in making decisions.

But it can be tricky. The message must be straightforward and understandable. If it’s too complicated, you lose people and they won’t understand it. If it’s too simple, it can mean anything and everything. Good leaders work hard on their messaging and on being consistent with that message—both in their communications and in their decisions.

Be Prepared to Be Flexible And Nimble.

Traci Ray was our chair in the bar year 2020–2021, during the worst of COVID-19. Perhaps no LP chair has ever faced the set of challenges Traci did. Her thoughts on good leadership: “Leadership means being flexible and being able to let go of pre-determined plans to switch gears and take on new challenges for the greater good. Overall, leadership is not about steering your ship how you see fit, it is about charting the course that comes your way with the best intentions for everyone aboard.”

A good leader knows when to hold them and when to fold them, to paraphrase Kenny Rogers. Or, as Mike Tyson put it, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s great to have plans and a vision, but sometimes you have to change them. You need to be prepared for the need to make changes. You can’t be afraid to do that.

Make Decisions.

Here’s my ingredient to add to the leadership stew: A leader makes decisions. You can’t just sit on things or overthink everything. Sometimes you have to act and make your best call. Decision inertia is almost always fatal; don’t decide things by not deciding.

And sometimes you must make decisions that not everyone will like or be happy with. It comes with the territory. But I have learned that a good leader will make hard and unpopular decisions without being a jerk about it—without being disagreeable or disrespectful to those impacted. When you make hard decisions that you know some will not like, you make those decisions with genuine concern about the people your decisions will impact. You must communicate what you are doing and why, even though it may be unpleasant and hard.

It’s really about integrity. It’s about earning trust and building relationships. It’s about communicating the vision. Do these things, and when you make the tough calls, people may not always agree, but most of the time, they will respect your decisions, like them or not.

So, these are the collective thoughts of LP leadership—past and present—on what makes a good leader. I will certainly do my best to follow these ideals—ideals that stem from years of experience. I urge all of you to do the same, no matter when and where you are called to lead.

I appreciate the opportunity to serve all of you as chair this year.