May 5, 2020
Many people aspire to be leaders and to obtain the title that frequently accompanies that attribute. Yet many of that same group struggle with what being a leader means and the responsibility and accountability that comes with it. In theory, demonstrating leadership seems easy: just think bigger than yourself, say and do what you believe is right, and be charismatic so that people buy into your thoughts and vision. In practice, it can be much more difficult and frightening to become a leader.
The hierarchal structures of many corporations and law firms make it difficult for individuals to raise thoughts, ideas and visions. Many corporate and law firm structures are such that the people handling most of the work are not empowered to make strategic decisions. Nothing moves forward without the partner’s or senior manager’s approval. This coupled with the fear that a misstep could cost you a promotion or partnership dampens leadership development. Also, some compensation structures (especially in law firms) do not reward managers for developing people — so there are few inducements to give authority to the associate. In fact, in law firms, the incentives go the other way. Partners are rewarded by holding a tight rein on the client relationship and keeping that income coming into the firm — and not by giving discretion to a junior associate. The result is employees are often so boxed in that they lose sight of what it means to be a leader. One non-equity partner at a major law firm asked me what her equity partner wanted from her when she asked her to lead. And when I told her what the partner was expecting, she was frightened because she had never been accountable for a decision before.
The irony is you need leadership skills to get to that next level or to be an equity partner or to find a new job. Here are three ways to begin to develop leadership when your organization is not supportive. Remember, no matter which way you get an opportunity to develop these skills to ask for feedback and incorporate it into your actions going forward.
You should find a committee or project within your organization in which you can manage, lead and learn to make decisions. Examples of this include working for — not just joining — an affinity group or volunteer organization or, if you are a lawyer, taking a pro bono matter. These types of projects give you an opportunity to take on tasks you have not done before, stretch your skills and get out of your comfort zone. Remember, there may be failures along the way, but that is part of the process. We learn when things don’t work out. We also learn how to handle situations that do not go as planned. To be a leader, you need to demonstrate that you are calm under pressure and solutions-oriented, so being faced with an unexpected turn of events is one of the best ways to develop those skills (though it seems painful at the time). You will also become more comfortable with making and being accountable for decisions and realize that when something goes wrong, it is not the end of the world. More importantly, you will learn how wonderful it is to be responsible for the successes that will also happen. And as you have victories, you may start having others notice and comment on your developing leadership skills.
You can lead a project for an outside organization — either an affinity group or outside volunteer organization. You may lose the benefit of others in the organization seeing you in action and finding time to volunteer. You can regain those benefits to a certain extent by discussing your volunteering at the office. Also, this approach yields other benefits. You are expanding your network and developing a brand externally, and if you are concerned about learning these skills at your organization, you are free to do so without any prying eyes. When first trying to break into an organization, often the opportunities are those projects no one else wants to take on. If you do it, they will be extremely grateful.
You can also find or earn a mentor or sponsor (see my other blogs on these topics) who will sponsor you to lead a project or case. When presented with such a golden opportunity, you need to take it and own it. These opportunities are earned, and you owe it to the other person to put in 110% of your effort. Now the downside is that these relationships are not easy to come by and take time to develop.
Leading can allow you to distinguish yourself, and it becomes more comfortable over time. One senior manager I coached asked me how I started leading and make decisions. I said by just doing it — over and over — and as time goes on, like anything else, leading becomes a habit, and you cannot remember not doing it. All you need to do is find a way to get those opportunities to develop and practice those skills. As you embark on this journey, remember that the leading includes being accountable for and owning any missteps or failures. The best leaders are those that own their decisions and mistakes, learn from them and then jump back on the horse.