Business psychologist and leadership consultant Jon Stokes shares his knowledge of leadership in the legal sector and how to be an inspiring leader

Leading lawyers

I sometimes teasingly explain to general counsels that the trick of managing and leading lawyers is to give them work of sufficient difficulty that indicates your high regard for their abilities, but not so difficult that they will fail and consequently blame either themselves, their colleagues, or worst of all, their clients for being so incompetent.

A further tip is not to forget that as ‘under-confident overachievers’ they have a tendency towards insecurity, as well as a desire to be included and recognised, even when they give the impression of not caring. Even the most senior lawyers, whilst claiming they are too busy to be able to attend meetings on time - or even at all - react very badly to not being invited in the first place!

Lawyers as leaders

Although lawyers usually wish to be influential, and even consider themselves to be leaders in their organisations, they have typically spent little time thinking about or preparing for leadership. The extended period of professional development means that interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence can receive far less attention than professional and technical skills.

Characteristics of lawyers

Lawyers, along with many other professionals, share a variety of characteristics:

  • A high need to achieve in their work, which results in a focus on tasks rather than on people and relationships, and a tendency to overvalue thinking and undervalue feelings
  • Powerful ideals and a strong conscience, which results in the tendency to blame oneself or others when things go wrong
  • A relatively high need for control and a tendency towards perfectionism, which combine to produce procrastination and a susceptibility to mild to moderate depression
  • Conflicting desires for autonomy and control and yet a strong need for recognition and to be included

Studies of the personality of lawyers identify them as above average in scepticism - indeed this could be even said to be an essential characteristic of a good lawyer. However the tendency to be argumentative, cynical and judgemental is not conducive to effective leadership. Human beings look to leaders for hope, confidence and trust; a tendency towards pessimism, doubt and scepticism are not characteristics likely to inspire followers.

What is to be done? Like most people lawyers tend to think that good leaders need to be charismatic when, in fact, there has been plenty of evidence in recent years for thinking that the power of charismatic leadership is more often the cause of organisational failure than it is of success. The charismatic leader encourages a dependent attitude in their followers and requires a high level of obedience, with ostracisation and other forms of punishment meted out to those who challenge. This leadership style can be contrasted with that of the inspiring leader, who aims to bring out the best and to have a developmental impact on those who follow.

Inspiring leadership

To be able to inspire might be thought to be a rare characteristic, but in fact, everyone is capable of inspiring others, and does so in some facet of their life. Most of us seek to find a partner in life who inspires us, and we do likewise in return. If we are parents, we are at least sometimes inspiring to our children, and they are perhaps more often so to us. But we seem to feel we should leave these characteristics behind when we walk through the front door at work, believing that a more dominant and aggressive style of leadership is what will be most effective.

In my research with over 1,000 individuals, I have identified six qualities common to how people describe the inspirational people in their lives. With Richard Jolly of London Business School, I have developed a framework called the ‘elements of inspiring leadership’ to capture these characteristics.

The elements of inspiring leadership

1. Being the exemplar

This means being a figure with whom others can identify, and on whom they can project the realisation of their hopes and ideals. Effective leaders espouse a clear set of values that are demonstrated, articulated and repeated.

Leaders represent some ideal for their followers. This leads others to want to follow them. They exemplify by their actions, not just their words, those behaviours they want their followers to adopt. Leaders have distinct values about work and relationships, and followers know clearly what these are. This leads to a defined set of priorities amongst followers. The difference between strong and weak leaders is not the nature of the values, but rather the forcefulness and consistency with which they are lived by the leader - this is about actions, not words.

2. Articulating a future

Effective leaders create a picture of a future state that provides followers with direction

The capacity to build a picture of the future has been a particularly strong finding in leadership literature. The ability to imagine and describe such a picture is also essential to the effective sharing of lessons from present and past experience. We are always telling a story to our employees about our ambition for the future, whether we realise it or not. The most powerful way of communicating your ambition is by telling a story - we remember stories, but do not remember PowerPoint slides, strategy documents or memos.

3. Reading the situation

Leaders use their intuition to gauge the appropriate timing and course of their actions

The more senior you get, the lower the quality and quantity of feedback you get. Your ability to collect and interpret soft data helps you to know just when and how to act, and how far you can go without losing your followers. This capability entails sensing the context at three levels: reading people and their reactions to situations; being able to sense the mood and motivation of groups, teams and business units; and, as you increasingly get more senior, being able to sense the likely future trends and issues that you need to pay attention to in your decision-making today.

4. Affirmation

Inspirational leaders enable people to feel good about themselves by making them feel appropriately valued

By giving people a sense of their actual and potential contribution and worth to the organisation, successful leaders demonstrate their interest in, availability to, and care for those they lead. It is always a challenge to focus on the needs of others rather than ourselves, but effective leaders make other people feel that they are important and valued, rather than simply telling others how great they themselves are. Most leaders can recall a few inspiring figures in their lives that have helped them become the person they are today - doing this for others builds loyalty and helps others improve their performance.

5. Having the difficult conversations

Leaders empathise passionately, but realistically, with their people

Successful leaders are able to see and feel the world from the perspective of people very different from themselves. But at the same time, they identify and give people what they need so they give their best, rather than necessarily what they want; being prepared to have ’difficult conversations‘ and then to take tough but correct decisions. Most leaders have conversations that they need to have, but feel uncomfortable having them, so find justifications for delaying them in the hope that the problem will go away. Effective leaders do not avoid these conversations - such avoidance usually makes the problem worse - but have the courage to do the messy, awkward, difficult things that are necessary for an organisation to thrive.

6. Being authentic

Inspirational leaders stand out and are memorable because they are different in some significant way from their followers

By being true to themselves in a skilful way - having the capacity to stay true to their own purpose and values - inspirational leaders provide clarity and a point of focus for their followers. Authentic leaders resist the significant pressure to conform in organisations, but rather act with an integrity and consistency that is communicated through behaviour and speech. Successful leaders are not, nor do they pretend to be, perfect. We are always revealing weaknesses to others, whether we think we are doing so or not. By acknowledging that you are not perfect, you create an environment where others are able to talk about and learn from their mistakes - one of the most consistent findings about organisations that have long term success is the ability to acknowledge and learn from mistakes.

These six elements of inspiring leadership are skills and capabilities which can be coached, practised and learned. It is most unlikely that anyone would be highly successful at all six but the good news is we all have role models from our past who have behaved in some of these ways. Indeed, these people constitute an internal board of advisers to whom we can turn for sources of inspiration when we are in a position to offer leadership to others.

Who can lead?

A common misunderstanding is the belief that leadership is something that only those at the top of organisations or the most senior people in groups exercise. In fact promotion to these positions is by no means a guarantee of impressive leadership behaviour. Leadership, which can be defined as the responsible exercise of power, can be exercised by the most junior person in an organisation when they identify something that needs to be done and have the courage to act.

Leadership entails having a picture of a better way of being or of doing things and taking action to make this happen. In the hackneyed jargon of management speak, having a vision, setting a direction, getting commitment and ensuring execution. Behaviour with these four defining features of leadership, which is also supported by personal behaviour that exemplifies one or several of the six elements of inspiring leadership, will be persuasive in making both the case for change as well as providing the example of what change looks like. As the sixth president of the United States John Quincy Adams said, ‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader’.

Copyright and all rights reserved: Jon Stokes, Stokes & Jolly Ltd

Jon Stokes is a director of the leadership and management development firm Stokes & Jolly Ltd. He is a business psychologist and leadership consultant who coaches and advises at board and senior levels on senior leadership development, leadership transitions and the in-depth assessment and selection of senior executives. He has consulted to leaders in many countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle-East and Asia.

jon stokes

He trained and worked as a clinical psychologist at the Tavistock Clinic and Institute in London where he became director of the Adult Psychotherapy Department and then the founder-director of Tavistock Consulting.

Jon is an associate fellow of Oxford University’s Said Business School where he teaches on leadership, an associate faculty member of Henley Business School where he works on the Advanced Personal Leadership Programme, and an associate of the Institute for Government.