How to be a good law firm leader

December 06, 2019

The subject of leadership has dominated the media this summer. A new US President (and “Leader of the Free World” no less) will be elected on 8 November. Here the vote to leave the EU led a new Prime Minister, while the battle to lead the Labour Party continues. And “Big Sam” Allardyce replaced “Woy” Hodgson as England football boss following a less than impressive Euro 2016.

Away from politics and sport, leadership remains a crucial factor in business success, in the legal sector as much as any other. Whether it’s leading a team, department or entire law firm, good leadership is essential. But what does it involve? What qualities do you need and are good leaders born or made?

What is leadership?

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says leadership can be defined as “the capacity to influence people, by means of personal attributes or behaviours to achieve a common goal”, but concedes that there is “no single definition or concept of leadership that satisfies all”.

It adds: “But leadership isn’t just about the qualities of a few, and isn’t always associated with a formal managerial role, although the leadership skills of chief executives and their teams are fundamentally important. More organisations today expect middle and junior managers, as well as employees without managerial responsibility, to act as leaders.”

Successful leaders go about their work in different ways, it explains, with different qualities required at different times, while “individual traits or behaviours alone cannot fully explain leadership effectiveness”.

Quote, unquote

So, how do the great and good define leadership? Retired Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield (remembered for his rendition of Bowie’s Space Oddity aboard the International Space Station) said of leadership: “Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others' success, and then standing back and letting them shine.”

When asked about leadership style, Nelson Mandela said: “It’s better to lead from behind and put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory. You take the front line when there’s danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

Renowned WW2 US five-star general, Douglas MacArthur, commented: “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.” More recent US general, Colin Powell, said: “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.”

Revered US management consultant and author Peter Drucker said: “No institution can survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organised in such a way as to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.”

Born or made?

According to US scholar, author and pioneer of contemporary leadership studies, Warren G Bennis: “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality”, while American leadership author John Maxwell believes a leader “knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way”.

In his book Leading the Life You Want, Stewart Friedman explores the skills needed to be a leader. He doesn’t believe that all great leaders are born with the skills they need. As reported by, he notes: “It’s a matter of, yes, skill. There’s a lot of luck. But there is also persistence, discipline, passion and courage to pursue that which is most important to you and people around you.”

Writing for, Erika Andersen (author of Leading So People Will Follow), she believes that some people are born leaders. “They start out very good and tend to get even better”. Others, she adds: “Aren’t ever going to be very good leaders.” In the middle (“where the vast majority of us live”) is where the real potential for ‘made’ leaders lies”. Remaining self-aware is extremely important, she stresses.

Virgin Group supremo Sir Richard Branson reckons that you have to be a good listener if you’re to be a good leader. His favourite quote about leadership comes from (Ancient Chinese philosopher) Lao Tuz, who said: “Leadership is the ability to hide your panic from others.”


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