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Healthy Organizational Culture: More Than Just 'Thick Skin

I worked with a client once whose idea of 'developing' new members of the organization was to berate and belittle them until they 'toughened up enough to prove they could hack it' working for him. It took a formal complaint to HR, an investigation, and his removal to trigger some self-reflection and change.


For a lot of us, this kind of story is par for the course. The legal world -- and law firms in particular -- have a reputation for grinding new lawyers until they break or give up and move someplace else. While our practice and our clients can require a lot from us, it seems to me that many of our challenges are self-inflicted because we don't, as an industry, make investments in leadership. That leaves us vulnerable to the way legal education and early practice actually undermine nascent leadership skills. (I've talked about that on during this podcast interview.) The legal education system, coupled with the early professional grind, inadvertently undermines and discourages the cultivation of nascent leadership skills. On top of that, popular depictions of lawyers in books, movies, and TV tend to idealize the lawyer as a loner (to the extent lawyers are idealized at all!), typically one who suffers before finding success. Over time, they build up a tolerance to the abuse and overwork or just 'get used to' being overwhelmed.

But that's where reality diverges (or, should diverge) from fiction.


True individual and organizational success isn't dependent on thick skin. In fact, a thick skin can de-sensitize us to the relationships with colleagues and clients that can lead to success and satisfaction. Instead, success flourishes within an environment that fosters trust, transparency, and empathy. It's about cultivating a resilient culture that doesn't necessitate hardening individuals but rather fortifying them through guidance and support.


The path to leadership isn't about the ability to endure relentless pressure; it's about nurturing talent, fostering growth, and instilling confidence. The notion that 'toughness' is the prerequisite for success is a misguided artifact of outdated leadership philosophies.


The legal profession, often likened to an arena for the resilient, need not become a battlefield where toughness reigns supreme. It's time to redefine what it means to thrive in this profession. It's about reshaping organizational cultures into spaces where vulnerability is embraced (because of both its intrisic value and its business value), and support is the cornerstone of professional growth.


Investing in leadership development programs within law firms isn't a luxury but a necessity. It's the foundation upon which resilient cultures are built. It's acknowledging that the strength of an organization lies in its capacity to empower its members to excel rather than its ability to demand 'thick skin' from them.


When you're ready to leave a 'thick skin' culture behind, let's talk about how I can help you transform your leadership, to help you develop stronger ties with colleagues and clients.

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