III. Weak leadership

Weak leadership, as with our first indicator, fuzzy strategy, may seem obvious or even vacuous. Permit me to dimensionalize it.

Weak leadership as I use it in this context means deference to the lowest common denominator, the partner(s) with the reflexive opposition complex. You know who these people are: Without needing any prompting whatsoever, they can spin out far-fetched objections to even the most commonplace suggestions, and their resistance is immune to any sense of context or proportion. Unfortunately, in far too many firms their opinions carry the day for fear of “offending anyone” or in order to “preserve our culture.”

Sorry if I’m about to offend anyone here, but indulging the irrational reservations of the minority is to preserve a “culture” which is more deserving of euthanasia than reinforcement.

I’ll give you an example.

This past week I was a moderator and panelist on a webinar about entry-level associate recruiting practices, and I’d presented information about the percentage of the Fortune 500 that use objective testing as part of their recruiting process—90%—and the attrition rate at Google, which has notoriously rigorous, some would even say laughable, recruiting practices. And even though the turnover rate at Google is relatively high—we’re talking about a lot of 20-something’s with rich opportunities at their feet—job satisfaction, at 84%, is among the highest in the Fortune 500. Given this broadly positive track record across corporate America, I confessed that I was perplexed that the legal industry, obviously a high-stakes recruiting environment, hadn’t embraced testing as well.

A question came from the audience: “But what other firms are doing this? We don’t want to be the first.”

My answer was that 90% of your clients are doing it, so it’s a bit too late to be the first. Nevertheless, my heart sank; I knew that person’s mind had slammed shut on the concept.

In the management literature, you occasionally—not often enough for my taste—see reference to the syndrome of “planning for failure.” That’s exactly what the naysayers with their far-fetched hypotheticals are doing. They have already decided that nothing we’re not already doing could possibly work, so why risk it? They’re planning for failure.

This actually illustrates another slightly different dimension of weak leadership: Not just catering to the lowest common denominator, but adopting a default posture of following the herd—no matter where it may lead you astray. At the very least, following the herd guarantees mediocrity.

Great organizations are not created by consensus. Committees don’t create.

What do all three of these conditions have in common?

They all reinforce, or at best do nothing to oppose, the inherent centrifugal forces innate to a loosely governed law firm partnership. I started this column by talking about firm failures; here you are staring at the very ingredients that increase the odds on that sorry and grossly unnecessary outcome.

If you diagnose any of these conditions in your firm, take a harder look.

There better be a compelling reason why you have an exception on your hands.

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