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Weak Leadership - The Intangibles

It's not hard to come up with a list of intangible costs to less-than-ideal leadership. As I mentioned yesterday, we're not talking about toxic leadership - harassment, workplace bullying, or the sort of environment that leads to employment litigation. One of the symptoms of weak leadership is frequent turnover, employees who are leaving on good terms but sooner than expected. Many times (as much as 40% of the time - see yesterday's discussion), these employees are leaving because of their leaders, not because of the work, the pay, or 'other opportunities.' They're just polite enough to let us all think it was a reason that didn't have to do with the leadership we offered them.

"Aging Support Group" by Ian Sane is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

That turnover has a real cost, but it also imposes less tangible -- but still very real -- penalties to your business and your team. These include:


Reputation (and its associated costs)

Staff and attorney well-being


Firm culture

When your staff and attorneys aren't offered empowering and engaging leadership, the first thing to suffer may be loyalty. This manifests in greater turnover, but it can have more insidious effects as employees may be less willing to speak up when they should. A lack of psychological safety leads to poor communication on your teams, and that means mistakes are less likely to be caught and fixed. The necessary communication is built on trust and respect. Efforts to strengthen firm leadership competencies should be part of the risk mitigation discussion because a culture of trust (a fundamental pillar of effective leadership) is an asset to enterprise risk mitigation.

You should also care about the reputation your firm's culture is generating. The firm's leadership reputation will directly influence both your recruiting and client acquisition/retention. On the recruiting side, a lack of enthusiasm among your team for how the team operates, and not just the work it does, will be obvious in new hire interviews and onboarding. Even without affirmatively badmouthing their situation, your staff and associates can send messages that will convince qualified new hires to look elsewhere. This extends the time it takes to fill a vacancy (and compounds the associated dollar losses). On the client side, a key reputational issue will be how well your firm walks its talk on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). Today, clients want to associate with (and spend money on) firms that are making positive contributions to social justice. Another aspect of psychological safety -- an environment that encourages interpersonal risk-taking -- is the permissibility it creates in letting your team bring more of their authentic selves to work. Without it, you may find it difficult to land and retain your best clients. That diversity of identity and perspective will pay off in both legitimizing your DEIB efforts, as well as attorney well-being.

The conversation around well-being often devolves to the most basic aspects of physical health and wellness. Are we getting enough sleep, enough exercise. Are we eating the right things. The Institute for Well-Being in Law defines well-being to include six distinct components:

Your firm has a responsibility to not just permit staff and associates the opportunity to care for their own well-being but to also affirmatively support their well-being. This includes creating safe environments for them to be themselves. Wearing a mask, wearing a different version of themselves at work has a psychological cost. Bearing that burden long-term contributes to burnout and disillusionment.

It's not hard to see how psychological safety can also facilitate creativity in problem solving and ingenuity in the delivery of legal services. Sometimes, a solution will not be obvious. Sometimes, the obvious solution will not be the most effective one. In both cases, you need your team to be able and willing to be creative. In a law firm setting, that often means taking a risk to speak up. Make that process ok for them and you'll find wins where you didn't expect.

All of these things are elements of your firm culture, and the fundamental question is whether you are creating the firm you intended? Just as it can be stressful for an individual to act without congruence with their principles, your organization may operate with invisible frictions if it isn't living up to its values. How your firm leads its people matters, and that leadership should flow from and be based on your firm's values. Not just by listing them on your website or in your promotional materials. Your firm's values must actually inform how decisions get made. Putting them into practice starts at the top and has to be embraced by leaders at every level. This is the thing your staff most wants and needs. The International Bar Association's 2021 study noted that employees' biggest request from their employers to support their well-being is "improved workplace culture."

How are you creating the culture and environment your team and your firm need to thrive? How you lead matters. I want you to lead with trust, transparency, and empathy. Over the next few blog posts, I'm going to give you a roadmap to do so. To make the fastest, biggest gains, work with a guide to walk this path. Find out if BKG Leadership Coaching is the partner you need by setting up a Legal Leadership Strategy Session; we'll help you chart your leadership journey, and it won't cost you anything.



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