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In-house Access Insight & Commentary for In-House Counsel Worldwide


Posted in ACC Annual Meeting

Leadership, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  Sure there are plenty of definitions and many a book has been written and speech given on the subject, but when you ask people, what leadership means to them, you’ll get an assortment of responses.  A recent quick poll of lawyers and others in the legal industry via email and Twitter resulted in the following (140 character) thoughts:

Leadership is …

“Providing direction, setting priorities and creating an atmosphere where people want to follow,” Fred Krebs, President of the Association of Corporate Counsel

“Anticipating, listening, deciding, communicating,” Patricia R. Hatler, ACC Board Chair and Executive Vice President, Chief Legal and Governance Officer at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company

“A vision of the future, persuading key players to share your view, making sure every decision furthers that view,” Patrick Lamb, partner with Chicago litigation firm Valorem Law Group.

“Doing the right thing even when it’s unpopular or unconventional. Especially when.”  Jay Shepherd, attorney with the Shepherd Law Group

"Vision, creativity and perseverance. Trend-setting is NOT the same.” Glenn Manishin, partner with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP

“Assessing priorities to set a vision, then inspiring others to achieve that shared vision through their own creativity and skills,” Timothy Corcoran, Senior Consultant with Altman Weil.

While similar traits are repeated, it’s often the actions that define a true leader and not the words. Like other subjective categories that lack clearly defined parameters, when speaking of great leadership we can cull from a famous phrase in Supreme Court history and say “I’ll know it when I see it.”

The pressure to “lead” has never been so strong and as everyone tries to keep up with the changes taking place, strong leadership will be the catalyst for long-term growth, stability and success.  Lawyers (both in-house and at law firms), too, are faced with these same pressures – to “do more with less” and to make their practices more efficient while still growing the bottom line.  Overcoming the obstacles and being able to lead so that, as Krebs pointed out, “people want to follow,” will be key to their survival.

But what’s a lawyer to do to stand out from the pack? How will the drive toward being a great leader engender buy-in and lead to success?  Have you assessed your own leadership skills lately?  Are you prepared for the challenges ahead? 

Several sessions during ACC’s Annual Meeting in Boston addressed the issue of leadership, and what struck me was the interesting parallel between effective leadership today versus examples from the past.  Ivan Fong, General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, shared his thoughts in relation to modern-day leadership, while Pulitzer Prize winning author, Doris Kearns Goodwin, offered an historical view of leadership as illuminated in her latest book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” The common thread with both was their emphasis on the importance of personal relationships – of caring and listening and a commitment to character – that set true leaders apart. 

At the heart of “Team of Rivals,” was Lincoln’s ability to “bring people together” and his success, as Goodwin explained, was “the result of a character that had been forged by experiences that raised him above his more privileged and accomplished rivals.”  Those around him would be hard-pressed to be mad at Lincoln, because inevitably, his power, his charm and his intelligence would bring people around, to be an ally. In some instances, this means taking charge, by letting go.

If you are, or have been, in a leadership role, then chances are you have had to deal with people who might not agree with your decisions.  Great leaders don’t lead by trying to make everyone happy. Instead, they bring them into the process.  As Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, aptly pointed out in a recent New York Times interview, “if people feel they were listened to, that their views were taken into account, that they had a chance to show you the world from their point of view, they’re going to be much more likely to go along with a decision.” 

The ability to engender trust, Fong explained, was at the core of being not only a good lawyer, but also an effective leader.  Specifically, “The hallmarks of being a good lawyer – the foundations on which everything is based – are the quality of the legal analysis, integrity, responsiveness, sound judgment and the ability to be a trusted advisor, all of which translate well into the public sector.”

In discussing “leadership imperatives,” Fong emphasized the importance of “beginning with the end in mind” and articulating a clear vision and compelling purpose for the organization.  A team, to be effective, needs to have a common understanding of “Why do we exist?  Where are we going?  And how are we going to get there?”  The shared mission, vision, and strategy, Fong explained, helps to inspire trust and engagement.  Regaling the possibly apocryphal story of a General’s encounter with a janitor in the halls of NASA during the 60’s, Fong explained that when the General asked the janitor what he was doing, the janitor replied, “I’m helping to send a man to the moon.”  A leader’s ability to communicate a compelling purpose – a shared vision – can inspire the entire organization to be right there with you.

Fong, like Lincoln, embraced the notion of “meeting people where they are,” of putting himself in the place of others and listening to those around him. By meeting regularly with his staff, learning about the processes already in place and gleaning insight from his direct reports, he has been able to set an agenda and establish clearly defined goals. “It’s not about working harder, longer hours,” Fong explained, “it’s also about stepping back and looking at how we do what we do and how can we stop doing things that no longer provide value.”

Using the example of a marathon, where the early runners cross the finish line before others even begin, Fong illustrated the importance of going back and putting yourself in the position of someone at the beginning of the race. Communication, another leadership imperative, can’t be emphasized enough in this regard. It’s vital for successful execution; and every organization needs it.

Goodwin, in describing Lincoln, believed one of the best indicators of a good leader was, “being able to motivate during frustration,” and in harmony with this sentiment, Fong noted, "You can tell the health of an organization by the quality of its arguments.”  These traits – overcoming obstacles and being able to lead in the midst of conflict – are vital for today’s leaders. The ability to ride out the economic waves of uncertainty, while maintaining control and respect, will propel the great leaders ahead.

Challenges, as Fong described, are where “what you do know and what you don’t know intersect.”  As a leader, you are tasked with uncovering the known and unknown and then tapping into the wisdom of those around you to help get the job done. Fong recalled his “A-Ha” moment when he realized that, while he couldn’t personally manage and lead all 1700 lawyers in his department, he could lead those lawyers within the top one or two layers, and influence their own leadership abilities.

Whether it’s gleaning insight from Fong or relishing Goodwin’s historical retrospective on Lincoln, much can be gleaned from the great leaders of today and those of the past.  Each of you will have your own style and approach, but ultimately, it will be your ability to connect with those around you – to engender trust and respect – that will be key to your own personal success as a leader. 

As you evaluate your own leadership traits, ask yourself if you are applying successful principles from the past for effective leadership today.  Specifically:

1. Are you fostering an environment of teamwork?

2. Are you addressing those that disagree with you in a way that leads to mutual understanding and buy-in?

3. Are you communicating a plan (your vision) effectively?

4. Are you evaluating processes and identifying opportunities for better alignment and efficiency?

5. Are you putting others’ interests ahead of your own?

6. Are you praising others for their contributions?

7. Are you treating everyone – at all levels – with the same respect?

8. Are you paying attention to suggestions & facilitating implementation?

9. Are you demonstrating trust, honesty and integrity?

10. Are you able to take charge by letting go?

Remember, leadership is in the eye of the beholder, and it will be the feedback and opinions of those around you that really matter. As someone that has had the privilege of getting to know Fong on a personal level, I can attest to his uncanny ability to engender trust and buy-in from those around him. Fong’s remarkable compassion, inherent interest and ability to lead in a collaborative environment are great qualities we can all learn from. And, as I have observed from my own interaction with Fong, when I encountered this great leader, “I knew it when I saw it.”


Susan E. Jacobsen, President of LUV2XLPR, Inc., has over 15 years of experience assisting in-house counsel, law firm attorneys and corporate executives with strategic communications initiatives.