Implicit throughout virtually anything published here on Adam Smith, Esq. is leadership. As an issue, a challenge, a conundrum, and even a definitional challenge (what is “leadership”?).
Because it’s pregnant in most everything, and because it’s perhaps the single topic leading most writers in business theory and management into recursive quagmires of tautologies and into bromides which are vacuous or self-evident or both, I have by design written about leadership per se almost never.
But as publisher I invoke the prerogative of changing settled practice. Herewith an article on leadership.
From a survey of leading management literature on leadership, here are some topics commonly if not universally addressed, and the confidently asserted and solemnly shared advice for how to deal, ideally, with each:
- Capitalize on your strengths
- Work on improving your weaknesses
- Seek consensus
- Lead from the top
- Rely on input from a wide variety of advisors
- Trust few if any
- Embrace disruption in your industry
- Stay true to your firm’s heritage
- Worry about your peer competitors
- Worry about disruptive upstarts
- Put the right incentives in place and the organization will follow
- Put the right values in place and the organization will follow
- Trust your gut
- Crunch the numbers
- Strategy trumps everything
- Culture trumps everything
- Athenian democracies win
- Command and control wins
Furthest from my mind is for this to seem a facetious exercise. This is what I read every week, in some of the most highly esteemed business publications out there. Hence my reticence to announce that a column might be about leadership. Looking at the contradictions, one is reminded of the title of Jimmy Breslin’s immortal book on the first season of the New York Mets, “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”
But I’m still going to try.
My theory of leadership begins from the premise that many forms can work, according to time, place, and circumstance, and that attempting to generalize across locales and contexts in terms of actions or styles of leadership is a fool’s errand. It’s not just that different leadership techniques are called for by different firms, but that the same firm requires different leadership styles at different times in its life. As Bill Voge, successor-to-be to the legendary Bob Dell at Latham, recently remarked in nicely self-deprecating style (I paraphrase), “I can’t be another Bob Dell; I expect to underwhelm.”
The longer I study, meet with, advise, and deal with law firms of all sizes and shapes, the more I’m coming to believe in the power of stewardship: The core belief that most of us walked into an institution created by our forebears and which we have an obligation to hand down to the next generation stronger, more powerful, and more vibrant than we found it.
You would assume talking about his makes people uncomfortable, but my experience has been that when you bring it up there’s a vast exhalation of relief and a welcoming assent that now we’re getting down to what really matters. (If you have a different experience at your firm, then we really need to talk, urgently.)
What does this have to do with leadership?