Leading by asking

“There go my people,” said 19th-century radical French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, supposedly on seeing a mob pass by the café where he was seated. “I must find out where they are going, so I can lead them.” You won’t find a more succinct summary of the paradoxical nature of leadership than that: how can you lead people if you don’t know where they want to go? And if all you’re doing is ascertaining the crowd’s direction, how are you leading, exactly?

I thought of M. Ledru-Rollin upon reading an article in today’s edition of the National Law Journal about law firms sending their lawyers on leadership training programs. One of the points it raises is that “leadership” is an elastic concept into which firms like to insert things like team-building or strategy buy-in exercises. I’m not really in favour of that, because leadership is too important a concept to be diluted: the more meaning you pack into that term, the less effective it’s going to be. That, in turn, raises the question of what law firm leadership is fundamentally about.

Well, I sure don’t have the answer. David Maister has said: “I think more rubbish has been written about ‘leadership’ than almost any other business topic. A lot of it is patently false, and even more of it is dangerous,” and I won’t add to the pile. But I will suggest that the collaborative aspects of leadership deserve more attention.

Strength, decisiveness and vision are often wrongly regarded as attributes of a lone, rugged, heroic persona — the brave individual who rallies the troops through the sheer force of being right. That works great in movies but rather less well in complex professional businesses, especially law firms of autonomous partners who will not be dragged anywhere they don’t want to go.

But good leaders know they don’t have all the answers, and they don’t care. What they do have is the judgment to tap into their best people’s collective wisdom and the confidence to integrate and orchestrate that knowledge in the right direction. They’re not diminished by seeking input, because they’re not looking for consensus or the path of least resistance: they’re looking for the right answer. Bruce MacEwen at Adam Smith, Esq. has written a lot of smart things about leadership, including this advice for managing partners:

You need to listen. Seriously listen. “Active listening” is one of the more depressing cliches to have emerged from the booming self-help industry, but I’ll tell you what active listening means to me: Actively encouraging disagreement. What is wrong with this picture I’ve drawn? What am I missing? If you were me, what would you do differently? “Conflict” it’s not; “consensus” it’s not. Common sense it might be.

That is so hard for lawyers to do — we hate, hate, hate not being right about something, especially when the stakes are high. A lawyer without all the answers feels deeply vulnerable. But leadership isn’t about owning the right answer — it’s about putting oneself in the service of the right answer, and recognizing that everyone has a piece of the map to get there. A leader who demonstrates the courage to be wrong, along with the firm conviction that we’ll get it right, has an intoxicating combination at his or her disposal.

In that regard, an innovative program just announced by Edge International and Managing Partner magazine shows the value of tapping into collective experience. Edge partner Patrick McKenna and Baker & Daniels Chair Emeritus Brian Burke are spearheading the Leadership Advisory Board, comprised of experienced managing partners who will offer new law firm leaders the chance to access their knowledge and insights. It’s a great example of mentoring, which the legal profession needs, in the service of leadership, which the profession needs even more.