Ordinary Leaders: An Untapped Resource

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Several years ago I worked with a law firm in which several partners were threatening loudly to leave the firm and were actively recruiting associates and staff to leave with them. Meanwhile, in case they stayed, they were lobbying for changes to the firm’s compensation system that would be more favorable to them.

Other partners were taking sides based on personal loyalties, economic concerns, fear of the firm breaking up and other reasons unique to each person’s perspective and interests. Some stayed on the sidelines to see how things would play out. Still others were busy trying to negotiate a peace.

If you were the managing partner of this firm, how would you address the situation described above? What if you were an influential member of the compensation committee? One of the associates being recruited? The member of the breakaway group with the smallest book of business?

An effective leader must consider and manage a variety of competing interests and elements to bring about a workable solution. The easy answer is that there is no easy answer amid the complex interplay of emotions, relationships, motives, business interests and dollars. Yet something must be done and someone has to do it. In such a situation, the managing partner might be wise to engage the quiet leadership skills of some of his or her colleagues.

Ordinary Leaders

The kind of leadership that works best is not always the kind of leadership to which a managing partner is most naturally suited. Many organizational issues that a leader must face call not for bold strokes but a steady hand—for what we will call “ordinary leadership.” Naturally strong or charismatic leaders may fail to recognize the importance of ordinary leadership or even see ordinary leaders as leaders at all. But a firm’s skilled situational leaders often can be relied upon to bring stability and pragmatism to dicey circumstances that affect the partnership.

In this discussion, we’re not talking about the persuasive powerhouses who control the dialogue by controlling the revenue streams. Instead, most firms also have ordinary leaders whose steady handling of delicate situations contributes to the stability of the organization. We have observed certain principles in these ordinary leaders that are of value to any law firm leader.

Characteristics of Ordinary Leadership

Ordinary leaders are not usually the larger-than-life figures who make good law firm chairs. They move patiently, carefully, prudently and inconspicuously behind the scenes. They don’t need to get the credit, they just want to do the right thing. They help solve big problems by a series of small, deliberate efforts.
Ordinary leaders are not altruistic – they formulate contingency plans and watch their backs like anyone else. They are realists who try to see the world as it is and deal with what they see. They look for creative alternatives to either-or solutions. They value trust, but they don’t assume it. Their view of how the world works is rooted in the following:

They don’t think they know everything. Ordinary leaders are modest, not prideful. Because thorny partnership problems are complicated, perilous and nuanced, it is imperative to be realistic to survive them. The ordinary leader does not seek to oversimplify complex situations nor assume too much about actors’ motives. Their modesty and humility help them accept how much they don’t know.

They expect to be surprised. No amount of analysis and preparation can control for all variables where other people’s behavior is concerned. Ordinary leaders realize that even if people can reasonably be expected to act in their self-interest, it may not follow that those people know clearly what their self-interest is or can exert it in every situation. After all, where two or more are gathered, self-interests are likely to collide. Loyalties, confusion, greed, resentments, lack of sleep and a host of other factors complicate human behavior and make it unpredictable.

They don’t fly too close to the sun. Law firms are structured not so much like a ladder but like a solar system. Some people are closer to the center of things while others orbit at the fringes. Those bodies in the tightest orbits have earned their positions by years of contribution, relationship building and politicking. The further one’s distance from the sun, the more expendable they are. Moreover, everyone can plot each other’s locations. Ordinary leaders know where they reside in the scheme of things and whose paths not to cross if they value their own security.

Ordinary leaders trust carefully. They invest in earning others’ trust and recognize that trust is built slowly and lost quickly. They read people objectively and proceed accordingly. They do not assume that they should trust or be trusted. They won’t risk trying to facilitate a solution too quickly in a low-trust setting.

Motives and Morality

Ordinary leaders act out of self-interest but not only out of self-interest. They suffer from mixed motives like anyone else. The important thing is that they recognize that their own ambiguous motives arise because they care about the outcome, for themselves and others, not altruistically, but pragmatically.

Caring is itself a powerful motivator. It’s not that ordinary leaders are morally superior, but that they take the problem personally and are driven to help resolve it. If they’re not driven to act in a certain situation, if they don’t care enough, they lay back. They focus on what they care about that realistically can be attained. They don’t act just because someone has to and they don’t take on kamikaze missions or martyrdom. They act within their spheres of influence and suffer no delusions that they can change the world. They pick their battles and show restraint.

Timing is important. Ordinary leaders take action but they don’t rush into action or present premature solutions. They understand that situational leadership means neither creating an unnecessary crisis nor preventing a necessary one from occurring. In a minefield of conflicting motives and agendas, the shortest course to a solution is rarely a straight line. They consider likely outcomes and fallout before they put their political capital at risk. They realize that the occasional difficulties of organizational life don’t rank among the great crises of our time, so they don’t treat them with such gravity or consider it a moral obligation to take a leading role.

All things being equal, ordinary leaders tend to be team players. They use the language of moral conviction sparingly, recognizing that each person’s strongly held convictions are valid and compelling to them and that, except in rare cases, no one appreciates being preached to by a peer.

A Lesson for Law Firm Leaders

Much more could be said about these ordinary leaders. They listen. They follow the flow of events. They keep an open mind. They respect the rules of society and the organization. They work on crafting compromises. The upshot of all this is that in the life of a partnership, there will arise any number of challenging situations where “the right thing” is not clear but something needs to happen. A decision needs to be made or an outcome reached that serves the greater good. Frequently in such situations, for the titular leader to take charge and force a heavy-handed solution can make things worse. In these cases, ordinary leaders are better equipped to deal patiently with the personalities and nuances that must be handled in their own good time.

Let’s return to the situation described at the beginning of this article. Did ordinary leadership help bring resolution? Yes it did. A certain senior statesman in the firm made the rounds, gathered intelligence, abided a few temper tantrums and assured everyone that things would be okay. Through patient dialogue and humble diplomacy, he helped make the best of a divisive issue. He failed in his efforts to keep the firm together, but he guided the partnership to a peaceful resolution. In the end, the dissenting partners did leave the firm, yet both firms are doing well and this ordinary leader is now the original firm’s managing partner.

The lesson for law firm leaders is that prickly organizational problems, whether extreme or routine, have implications for the partnership that require answers, but their own leadership styles may not always be best suited to get to the best answer. Ego driven leaders may try to impose an outcome by force of will or fail to trust the instincts or capability of their less accomplished colleagues. Some leaders tend to act like a hammer and treat people and problems like nails. They may not recognize ordinary leaders as leaders at all. The most effective leaders, however, will know when to step back and let the ordinary leaders do their thing for the good of the partnership.

Eric A. Seeger is a principal with Altman Weil, Inc., specializing in law firm strategy and management.  Contact him at (610) 886-2000 or eseeger@altmanweil.com

NOTE: The author is indebted to Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr., Leading Quietly, © 2002 Harvard Business School Press.

Copyright © 2010-2016, Altman Weil, Inc., Newtown Square, PA.  All rights for further publication or reproduction reserved.
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