William Johnston of W. Johnston Associates.
William Johnston of W. Johnston Associates. (Courtesy photo)

For years, there has been a steady stream of articles and books that describe the characteristics of great leaders, most often focusing on specific traits like diligence, vision, communication skills and the ability to inspire and motivate. Oddly, one other trait is rarely mentioned, yet is perhaps the most important leadership skill of all—the ability to identify and groom other highly talented leaders.

Successful businesses rarely thrive solely due to the efforts of one individual. While one person can have a significant impact on how well a business does in the short term, organizations that perform well over the long term (decades, generations or longer) succeed because they are led by people with the foresight to recognize, develop and promote members of a very small percentage of the population who can actually lead. For these businesses, strong, empowered, multilayered leadership is a core, differentiating factor. It is a fundamental reason why certain businesses consistently outperform their competition, regardless of the business cycle, industry dynamics or competitor moves.

Given that there is not an overabundance of great leaders in the general population, the leadership challenge is partly a matter of numbers. Taken a step further, while there exist the positive attributes of very high academic achievement and raw intellect within the population of lawyers, neither of those traits is a prime indicator of leadership skills. In fact, among the most intellectually gifted, the actual percentage of great leaders tends to go down. So, from a basic leadership standpoint, law firms start from a more challenged position.

In the legal profession, a number of well-known (and not so well-known) leaders have taken firms from obscurity to prominence. Unfortunately, not all of the once-obscure firms maintained their elevated position long term; some faltered and some disappeared altogether. But, there are some bright spots where firms rose from obscurity and, today, are solidifying their positions as market leaders for the future. What determines the winners and losers from this group? Quite simply—consistent, high-quality (at times, extraordinary) leadership, up and down their ranks. These firms have built a virtuous cycle of choosing and grooming great leadership that is strengthened during each leadership transition.

This raises a question—if leadership is a key driver of long-term success, why don’t all firms select and groom great leaders? Too often, the issue is that the firm—or, more likely, the current leader—failed to find, develop, tolerate or promote great leaders. As a result, over time the firm flounders, or worse. Oddly enough, the presence of one dramatic, visible leader can actually be a trigger of future problems, particularly if the leader’s ego results in the leader having no faith or confidence in anyone else. While such leaders may be able to temporarily push and cajole the organization to greatness through the strength of their personality, such greatness is often short lived.

Of course, not every organization lasts forever and some extremely well-led businesses fail. A common characteristic of great leaders who have watched their organizations struggle after their departure is a deep and lasting sense of responsibility; they believe they failed the people and business that they cared so much about. Other former leaders—the most egocentric—think differently. These people assume that a follow-on failure after their departure is testimony to just how great the quality of their leadership really was. In reality, such a result is an indictment of their (often self-centered) focus and limitations, and a clear signal that they nurtured the failure.

How do leaders—many of whom may be well-intentioned, but poorly guided—foster an environment of leadership dysfunction?

1. First, by not understanding what great leadership is in the first place. While it may seem counterintuitive that a leader doesn’t know how to identify great leadership, or groom this in others, this is actually a much more common phenomenon among those who are naturally talented. As was noted in the book, “The Extraordinary Leader,” “Most highly skilled performers in any activity, whether it be music, sports or violin making, cannot accurately tell you what makes them so effective. Their behavior is often highly intuitive.” This concept extends to almost every skill, industry and profession. So many leaders instinctively know how to lead, but they can’t recognize in, or teach it to, others.

2. A related and common problem in law firms occurs because law firm leaders are often chosen on the basis of something other than true leadership skills. The classic example is a leader who is chosen primarily because of rainmaking skills. While it is true that most law firm leaders have rainmaking skills, it is more true that among rainmakers only a small subset have great leadership skills.

3. By surrounding themselves with “yes-people,” who both compromise themselves within the partnership and fail to develop actual leadership skills. While insecurity, in and of itself, tends to be a common trait among all leaders, uncontrolled insecurity drives malformed leaders to surround themselves with others who never question and never object. These firms typically suffer from the dubious trifecta of bad leadership, weak leadership development and a long string of bad strategic decisions.

4. By avoiding tough decisions, so picking and grooming the wrong supporting cast of leaders. In these firms, those in leadership roles are typically picked for all the wrong reasons—because they have a big book of business, because they are a friend or are just popular, because they won’t rock the boat, or because they want/need/demand to be recognized.

5. By “earning” the leadership role because they are a compromise leader, chosen as a reaction to a bad predecessor or because factions within the firm cannot coalesce to support and empower one individual.

In order to avoid falling into one of the categories above, it’s helpful for firm leaders to consider the leadership dynamic they are building. So, assess objectively the following:

• Are the leaders you have chosen to work with unpopular and/or the subject of complaints that “they aren’t doing anything?” Do you constantly resist or reject those claims, even though they are widespread?

• Do you find yourself having to explain the great value of the leaders you have chosen because people just don’t seem to get it?

• Are you afraid to change leaders due to your fear of change?

• Are you constantly defending your leadership team, especially those who have been in their role for some time?

• Do you argue that the firm has a history of having leaders in place for long periods of time and/or that it is too destabilizing to have change among leaders?

Unfortunately, answering “yes” or “maybe” to any of the questions above means that you are probably failing the “great leader test.” And, the longer your firm goes without great leadership, the less likely it will ever allow future great leaders to emerge. For many law firms, that was not a problem for much of their history, because regardless of what leaders did, the profession was sufficiently lucrative and uncompetitive that most law firms did just fine. Those days are rapidly coming to an end, if they have not already passed.

In order to avoid having your firm falter now or perhaps after you step down, it is important that time be spent assessing and investing in the firm’s leadership dynamic. Weaker firms … those stuck in obscurity … relentlessly follow the path of least resistance and choose “leaders” who are, at best, “personable managers.” The fact is, law firm leadership is a massive responsibility and an extraordinarily rare skillset. Successful firms—and the best leaders—understand this and choose the correct people to lead.