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Philosophy vs. Tactics

What you believe about the role of leadership is going to subtly influence how you perform as a leader. Two people who believe different things about their roles will perform the same leadership functions in different way and will be received differently by their teams. Understanding the tactics of leadership is absolutely necessary to get your teams to perform at their best, but approaching those tactics with the right mindset -- the right philosophy -- is what will bring the most success. Tactics are necessary, but insufficient without the philosophy to ensure those tactics are delivered in a way that ensures they are received.


Here is a basic example, contrasting two different leadership philosophies. Jim, a new partner at a growing regional firm of 40 attorneys has been asked to open an office for the firm in a new city. Two senior associates are going with him and the firm has hired three more brand new associates and three support staff to get the new branch office up and running. Jim is anxious to both make an impression on the firm management team and turn the new office into a profit center as quickly as possible. He sees his role as driving that success through close oversight, or 'command and control.'

Sarah has similarly been tapped by her firm to launch a new practice group. She came to the firm a few years ago with experience in a particular niche that the firm was looking to fill and she's been successful in building that niche out and drawing even more business than the firm expected. She's been tasked to turn her experience into a practice group that will support another partner with limited experience in the field, an interested senior associate, and two mid-level associates who volunteered to grow the practice area but don't really have any experience or interest in it; they see it as a shortcut to greater exposure to firm leadership. Sarah sees her role as a mentor and coach to her team, understanding that their growth and fulfillment will drive the firm's growth.

Both Jim and Sarah do many of the same things in their respective leadership roles. They've heard the same advice and read the same articles that have been popular recently about attorney well-being. They both care about treating their team well, but they see their roles differently. Jim believes he is 'in charge' of the team. Sarah believes she is part of the team, but that her role on the team is to make decisions that will guide the practice group's growth.


It isn't too difficult to see that the way Jim and Sarah interact with their teams will be slightly different, even when they are executing the same leadership tactics. I've written before about one of my favorite leadership tactics, leadership by shoe leather. When Jim walks down the hall to talk with his team, they know he's there to check on their work progress, to gauge where they are coming up short and give instructions about what to do next. When her team sees Sarah, they know she is coming to check on them, to ask what they need, and to provide the resources and guidance they need to be successful. The conversations will be very similar, but the manner in which they are delivered and, most importantly, the way those conversations are received by their respective teams will be different. Both Jim and Sarah might be successful in growing profits for their firms, but it will be Sarah's team that is more likely to stay with the firm longer, themselves create new avenues for growth, and be more ready to take on greater responsibility and more senior roles.


Even a simple technique like leadership by shoe leather will be received differently when it is executed with a 'command and control' philosophy rather than when grounded in trust, transparency, and empathy. The environment that gets created is going to be totally difference. Acting with a philosophy grounded in trust, transparency and empathy is going create an environment of inclusivity of collaboration. It's going to be one that inspires belonging and loyalty. When you use the same technique based on a philosophy of 'command and control,' you create a big brother environment, an environment of distrust. You’re not going to inspire openness and authenticity. Returning to my earlier posts about costs of leadership in your firm, you have key performance indicators (tangible costs) and culture/environment imperatives (intangibles) that will lag where they could be. Associate turnover will be higher under 'command and control' styles of leadership; attorney well-being will be lower; and your associates will not have been exposed to the skills they need to take on greater responsibility and keep the firm growing.


The difference is going to be in the philosophy that grounds your execution on the leadership tactics. If you want to help practicing it, if you want help understanding it on a deeper level, let’s set up a call and talk about it.

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