Toward Better Leadership: Self-Development, Focusing on Strengths & Accepting Flaws

Dr. Larry Richard

By Dr. Larry Richard

This article first appeared on Tuesday May 17, 2016, on the Legal Executive Institute blog site, which is curated by Thomson Reuters.

One of my favorite leadership books is The Extraordinary Leader by John Zenger and Joe Folkman. In this book, the authors offer a number of findings from their own empirical research about what makes leaders effective, i.e., what makes constituents actual follow leaders.

One of their principal conclusions is that constituents follow leaders who consistently demonstrate three to five strengths, particularly when their mastery of those strengths is so formidable that observers rate them in the top 10%. For example, a leader who is a really crisp decision-maker, who also is very patient even under stress, and who is also a superb listener, will gain a large following.

Their research reveals an important corollary as well: When a leader consistently demonstrates this kind of mastery of strengths, constituents will overlook a leader’s weaknesses.

Several inferences of use to lawyer-leaders can be drawn from these two research findings. First, it’s obvious that truly effective leadership is not just about knowing what to do. Leaders can’t simply have good ideas or even good policy prescriptions and expect others to follow them. They also have to pay attention to developing themselves. In fact, mastering strengths is just one of many findings about the importance of self-development for effective leadership.

Other research shows that, to be effective, leaders must:

  • be authentic;
  • demonstrate character and integrity; and
  • have self-awareness.

Research continually shows that leadership can be learned, and that the kind of learning must be experiential. To learn these skills, you can’t expect to passively sit in a room and listen to a lecturer present a series of Power Points about good leadership. That approach may work really well for CLE programs where the goal is to learn about the latest changes in the law, but it absolutely does not work in learning leadership skills. Would-be leaders need a more involving immersion experience to learn to be leaders.

The second inference from Zenger and Folkman’s findings is that flawed leaders can nevertheless be very effective leaders. As lawyers, we are more risk-averse than most other people. We also suffer from what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” — that is, we believe that who we are was set in stone during our growing up years, and can’t really be changed today. This “fixed mindset” leads us as adults to avoid risk, which often means avoiding learning and self-development. This is antithetical to learning to be a good leader. Luckily, this is just a “mindset”, and it can be changed. Shifting from a “fixed” to a “growth” mindset has profound beneficial effects, based on Dweck’s many years of research on the subject.

The third inference is one that may surprise you — Donald Trump’s ascension to front-runner status in the Republican primary race demonstrates the Zenger/Folkman principles fairly clearly. Whether you agree with his approach or not (I don’t), he has clearly gained followers by demonstrating several strengths even though he also has some glaring weaknesses. Seen through the Zenger/Folkman findings, his success is not surprising (even if it is an extreme example.)

Taking the Self-Development Pathway

Of these inferences, the one that we can do the most about is the first one — effective leaders pay attention to self-development. By extension, that also means that effective leaders must first increase their self-awareness. Ample research reveals the importance of both self-awareness and self-development to effective leadership. Here are some suggestions to law firm leaders to help you in your development efforts:

  1. Consider taking one or more tests that measure qualities important to leadership — personality, values, strengths and leadership style. Getting feedback from these types of tools is indispensable. Each test not only helps you understand your own traits, values, strengths or style (as well as blind spots) better, it also gives you a useful model for understanding others who think differently than you do.
  2. Resist the “fix your deficiencies” mindset that is so common in the legal profession. I’m not saying you can ignore your own performance problems — if you’ve got a glaring one, you do need to fix it. What I am saying is that your time is better spent figuring out what you do exceptionally well and putting more energy into getting even better at those one or two things.
  3. Consider hiring a coach if you haven’t already. A well-trained executive coach can make a dramatic difference in your quest to develop your strengths.
  4. Work on only one strength at a time. Many lawyers I’ve worked with try to “boil the ocean” — they make an exhaustive list of all the areas they want to improve and then make it their mission to improve all of them at once. This is a formula for failure. There’s strong evidence that people who focus on just one self-improvement goal at a time have the most success.
  5. Set a clear and realistic goal. Your goal should be concrete, specific and capable of measurement so you can visibly see your progress. An independent third party to whom you describe your goal should be able to observe your behavior and easily discern whether you’ve reached a particular milestone or not.
  6. Figure out a way to obtain feedback about your progress along the way towards your goal. Teresa Amabile’s The Progress Principle, for example, shows how powerful such ongoing feedback can be.
  7. Link your development goal to a more important outcome — something that matters personally to you. When goals are connected to personally meaningful outcomes, individuals are more likely to attain them.
  8. Finally, be willing to have your leadership performance measured regularly by a 360-degree survey, e., have multiple parties (partners, associates, etc.) complete evaluation ratings about your performance.

You may have natural strengths that led you into your leadership role in the first place, but if you leverage those strengths so that they are even more formidable, you will most certainly increase your effectiveness as a leader.

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Dr. Larry Richard:  Dr. Richard is the founder and principal consultant at LawyerBrain LLC, a consultancy specializing in improving the practice of law using personality science. Dr. Richard practiced law for ten years before earning a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. For the past 20+ years, he has helped the leaders of AmLaw 100 firms improve leadership, manage change, build collaboration and employee engagement, and select and develop talent. He is widely regarded as the leading expert on the psychology of lawyer behavior. For more information, visit www.lawyerbrain.com. To contact the author, write to drlarryrichard@lawyerbrain.com.

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

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