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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Why Visionary Leadership Is Critical in Times of Uncertainty

Mark Beese and Ian Paterson


  • Being able to develop a clear and compelling vision is critical to law firm leaders today. Those who struggle with vision skills are at a disadvantage when leading their teams through periods of dynamic change.
  • Take some time to improve your vision by working through the steps below. Those you lead will thank you with increased commitment and engagement.
  • Visionary leaders are those who “envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities and enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations.
Why Visionary Leadership Is Critical in Times of Uncertainty

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Over the past 15 years, I have administered a 360-degree leadership assessment to lawyers as part of a comprehensive leadership development course. Of the wide range of leadership skills and practices that the assessment measures, I’ve found that lawyers tend to score the lowest on practices related to vision. Being able to develop a clear and compelling vision is critical to law firm leaders today. Those who struggle with vision skills are at a disadvantage when leading their teams through periods of dynamic change.

What is Vision?

In The Leadership Challenge, authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner define vision as “(a) unique and ideal image of the future for the common good.” Visionary leaders are those who “envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities and enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations.”

The art of visioning is both an act of expressing a compelling state of the future and enticing others to work toward this shared aspiration. Visionary leaders often:

  • depict a desirable image of the future;
  • discuss future trends that affect the team’s work;
  • appeal to others to share their image of the future; and
  • talk convincingly about the impact and meaning of the work tied to the vision.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Kouzes and Posner describe a research study about visionary leaders that asked what attributes were most valued among leaders and colleagues. Not surprisingly, honesty was cited as the number one requirement for both a leader and a colleague. Being forward-looking was ranked as the second-highest requirement of a leader but was ranked much lower for a colleague. The authors noted that “(n)o other quality showed such a dramatic difference between leader and colleague.”

This difference represents a big challenge for leaders because the most desired trait for leaders, being forward-looking, is not something new leaders had to demonstrate in their previous, nonleadership roles. “Perhaps that’s why so few leaders seem to have made a habit of looking ahead,” the authors suggested, adding that research shows that just 3 percent of the typical leader’s time is spent envisioning and enlisting others to share in that vision.

Why Is Vision So Important Now?

In times of uncertainty, people look to leaders for a vision of a positive future.

The legal market is changing in many ways, including how lawyers use technology, the expectations of a younger generation of professionals and how work gets done in a remote/hybrid environment. Staff and lawyers in law firms look to their leaders to show a clear path through the confusion and chaos that challenge the status quo.

Effective change initiatives require a clear and compelling vision.

Firms are embarking on all sorts of change initiatives today, from remote/hybrid working models to new technologies and novel ways to collaborate to better serve clients. Every change initiative requires leaders to voice a clear and compelling vision of the positive results of the initiative. The vision shows why all the hard work is worth it.

John P. Kotter, in his seminal article “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” reflects on the importance of vision in change initiatives:

In every successful transformation effort that I have seen, the guiding coalition develops a picture of the future that is relatively easy to communicate and appeals to customers, stockholders, and employees. A vision always goes beyond the numbers that are typically found in five-year plans. A vision says something that helps clarify the direction in which an organization needs to move.

Generation Z and Millennials expect their leaders to be visionary.

Many firms are struggling to retain and engage Generation Z and Millennial professionals, including associates and director-level staff. Young professionals are looking for meaning from work, even more than prior generations. They look to their leaders’ vision to see if it aligns with their vision of their lives, asking:

  • Does my work make a difference?
  • Am I part of something important and unique?
  • Can I make a meaningful contribution?
  • Will I be recognized for my contribution?
  • Can I take pride in my firm’s values and brand?

When young professionals leave an organization, it is often because they can’t make the connection between their hard work and the aspirational vision of the firm’s leaders, sometimes because that vision was not developed or communicated.

So far, we’ve spoken about the importance of leaders having an overall vision for their firm. However, just like strategy, it is crucial that this is cascaded, or made sense of, right across the firm. When this is not done, we often hear comments like “I’ve no idea what our vision is” from associates and partners. In response to this, exacerbated leaders will tell us “We’ve shared our vision several times across multiple channels; they’re just not listening.” The issue here is that individuals do not understand what the vision means to them. If this is true, the impact is the same as not having any vision at all.

We recommend that leaders take the time to discuss the vision with their groups to identify the behaviors (things people say or do) that are consistent and supportive of the vision. Once these supporting behaviors have been identified, everyone knows what is expected of them. It’s important to note that we’re not suggesting multiple versions of the vision, rather specific, supporting behaviors. This exercise has the benefits of bringing the team together and creating a sense of purpose for individuals.

Practices of Visionary Leaders in Law Firms

Visionary leaders live with one foot in the future. Here are some practices to help you be a more visionary leader:

Become a legal futurist. Spend time researching and thinking about how future trends and forces will impact your practice and firm. Engage others in dialogue around future trends. Consider how trends outside of legal may impact client expectations and behavior. Take time to get away from the day-to-day issues and spend some time developing a future-focused vision.

Look for opportunities for innovation, even if they are small change initiatives. Develop a habit of looking for ways to improve processes and engage others in those changes. Make it a practice to continually find ways to improve how you and your team serves clients and get work done.

Engage others in your vision quest. Ask people about their fears, goals and aspirations for the future. Once you understand what motivates your team, you can design a vision that appeals to their aspirations. Find ways to connect opportunities for change with their dreams.

Connect with WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?). Why should people on your team and in your firm embrace your vision? What’s in it for them? How can you frame your vision as a cause that helps them get what they want out of work?

Use stories to inspire and illustrate your vision. Tell a story or use a metaphor to illustrate the power of your vision. You may need to adapt your vision story over time in exchange for buy-in. Tell a story about a successful organization that overcame similar challenges and ask, “What if we could accomplish that, or more? What would it take to make this vision a reality?”

Be willing to spend reputational capital to engage others in your vision. Powerful visions can be threatening to others and pose a reputational risk. Sometimes, you may need to spend your time and credibility to invest in relationships to build trust and commitment.

Vision Casting (Communicating a Compelling Vision)

Develop a theme. Focus on a few key words or ideas that convey the essence of your vision. Create metaphors and find creative ways to use them. Practice your “vision speech” that you can deliver in just a few minutes, whether you are meeting with a practice group or waiting in line at Starbucks.

Use multiple channels. Communicating a vision is a lot like branding—it takes multiple channels of communication to get your point across effectively. Use your vision speech and stories when you meet with practice groups, staff and firm leaders. Use intranets, blogs, social networks and email. Employ all available tools to keep your message in circulation.

Repetition. Vision casting is a lot like fly casting—you must cast over and over and over again before you get a bite. Constantly communicating your vision and connecting individual and group contributions to the vision is critical for people to “get it.”

Build a movement. Identify opinion leaders, stakeholders and supporters who will influence others to buy in to the vision. Seek their support before going mainstream. This may require some horse trading to get buy-in from potential naysayers.

Communicate one-on-one. Engaging people individually gives them an opportunity to provide feedback, give support and create energy around the vision. One-on-one meetings are critical to getting buy-in and engaging people to act.

Practice what you preach. Reinforce your words with your behavior. If people see one thing and hear another, you’ve lost your credibility and your vision becomes a joke.

Vision casting is everyone’s responsibility, not just the managing partner or senior leaders. Even if you are not the author of the vision, it is your job to understand and communicate the vision to your team. Everyone in the firm should be able to articulate the firm’s vision and values. They should know how the firm’s vision connects to their role in the firm. Everyone should understand how to show their passion for the firm’s vision, and how to overcome any obstacles they or their group has in realizing the vision.

Take some time to improve your vision by working through the steps you’ve just read about. Those you lead will thank you with increased commitment and engagement.