Why Skeptics Make Good Lawyers and Lousy Leaders

Dr. Larry Richard

By Dr. Larry Richard

I recently finished conducting a 6-month-long “Action Learning” leadership program with a mid-size law firm. The idea is to train lawyers to be leaders by actually placing them into real live leadership situations, and teaching through experience, instead of using a “death by Power Point” approach.

At the end of our capstone meeting, one of the participants asked me about skepticism and leadership. If you’ve followed my writing, you’ve heard me describe the personality data that I’ve gathered on thousands of lawyers. One of the most robust findings over the years is that lawyers are much more skeptical than the general public. This is the result of several factors that all move in the same direction:

Being a lawyer requires one to constantly search for problems, to wonder what could go wrong, to find the flaws and defects in an assertion. As a result, people with a personality that leans in this direction are more prone to entering the profession, and people with less of this tendency drop out of law school and out of practice at a disproportionately higher rate than their more skeptical counterparts. This concentrates the skeptics in two ways–more are attracted in the first place, and fewer drop out over time.

Skepticism itself is one of those personality traits that is more influenced by one’s environment than is typical. Most personality traits are more genetically predisposed, more nature than nurture, but skepticism is an exception. It is very much influenced by one’s milieu. And the milieu in most law firms, the mindset that is the norm, is one of skepticism. Over the years, I’ve asked people who work with lawyers, are married to lawyers, or who know lawyers, “What adjectives would you use to describe the lawyers you know?” I’ve gotten many responses, but the five most frequent are these: cynical, skeptical, critical, negative and pessimistic. (I also hear arrogant, analytical, egotistical, smart, and several others quite often.)

The point is that the profession both attracts and reinforces people with a negative mindset because this type of critical thinking is essential for a lawyer who wants to do a good job at representing clients.

In recent years, however, lawyers have increasingly been called upon to play many other roles besides “lawyer”. These include leader, manager, supervisor, mentor, committee chair, rainmaker and teammate. These newer roles all require less skepticism and more trust, the opposite of skepticism.

This brings us back to the question that this new law firm leader asked me–Can a skeptical lawyer be a good leader?

The essence of leadership is setting a clear goal and then mobilizing and inspiring others to voluntarily take action to achieve that goal. According to research by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (The Leadership Challenge; Credibility), trust and credibility are the sine qua non of effective leadership. Leading others is an intensely personal process. People follow a leader because they trust their leader to do the right thing. When a leader is skeptical–and I mean skeptical in his/her leadership role–it leads to a big problem.

Think about really skeptical people that you know. How do you react to them? Do you instantly trust them? Or do you find yourself being skeptical right back at them? Most people instinctively find themselves pulling back and becoming skeptical in response to a skeptic. When a leader is skeptical of us, we become less trusting and more skeptical of that leader. And this is precisely the opposite reaction from what any leader should want. In short, the most effective leaders are trusting, approachable, accepting.

When a lawyer takes on a leadership role, the challenge is one of adaptability–how can you maintain your useful skeptical outlook while wearing your lawyer hat, and yet relax your vigilance and assume a more trusting persona while wearing your leadership hat? I can tell you from experience that it is possible for lawyers in leadership roles to learn this kind of adaptability, what I call “personality agility”, but it’s not easy, and not everyone can do it successfully. It requires first and foremost the desire to become more effective as a leader, plus a willingness to both be self-aware and to receive and reflect on feedback. Next, it’s important to see one or more actual examples of people who have successfully figured out how to achieve this kind of role adaptability, so that the learner can role model what s/he is seeing. Finally, it requires lots of actual and mental rehearsal of the new behaviors, and sufficient reinforcements to cement them in place.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

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