How to be an effective leader

By John Allison

Lawyers often have leadership roles. They may be partners in a law firm or managers in a legal department.  A lawyer may be leading a team of lawyers and other professionals handling a legal matter on behalf of a client.  A solo practitioner is the leader of the people in the firm.    

A study performed for the Association of Legal Administrators shows that the financial success of a law firm depends in large part on the leadership skills of the firm’s partners.  This is not surprising, since an effective leader creates an environment in which people are motivated and feel empowered to contribute their best work.  In contrast, a person in a position of authority who has poor leadership skills can create a toxic work environment in which people feel disempowered and are principally motivated by a desire to avoid criticism or blame.

To be effective as a leader it is essential to cultivate three personal qualities – honesty, integrity and credibility.  It is also important to develop a high degree of self-awareness, to understand your weaknesses and blind spots and to appreciate the impact you have on other people.     

Honesty can be summed up in two words:  Never lie.  It is perfectly acceptable to sidestep a question or to avoid discussing a particular topic.  Yet words should be chosen carefully so that what you do say is in fact true.  To have integrity your words, actions and personal moral values need to be aligned with each other.  Credibility is built on a foundation of authenticity, responsibility and transparency.  To be authentic, be yourself and avoid trying to talk or act like somebody else.  Take responsibility for yourself, for your impact on other people, and for the consequences of your actions and decisions.  Be as open and transparent as you can, consistent with privilege, privacy and tactical considerations.

When you are in a leadership role create an environment of mutual trust in which people feel safe to take reasonable risks, to make mistakes and to collaborate with each other.  Empower the members of your team to develop creative solutions for their assignments, seeking help and suggestions from you only when needed.  Refrain from micromanaging, which inhibits creativity and makes the members of a team feel they are not trusted to perform their assignments.  And don’t blame members of your team when things go wrong.