Yes, it happens. We’ve seen several situations where the firm’s Managing Partner or Chair can’t bring themselves to make decisions–some arguably critical to the firm’s prosperity and vibrancy in the long run–because they fear some partners will object.

Some partners will always object; it makes them feel better, plus it’s just what they do.

But true as that is, it’s too glib; we need to dig  more deeply. For starters, we need to distinguish between perfunctory, pro forma, reflexive objections, and those that touch the existential core of the partner/firm bond.

The first type can be handled by reassuring them that they are indeed the smartest person in the room, that you’re exceedingly grateful they offered that valuable input, and that you’ll take it into consideration before you decide anything.

Next, proceed to do exactly what you had in mind at the start.  Within a week after it (whatever “it” is) happening, they’ll behave as if the world was always thus.

We’ll get to the second type of objection momentarily, but before that let’s turn to the Managing Partner’s perspective.  What exactly are you afraid of? Instigating a fifth column of malcontents trying to undermine you behind your back? Facing an actual challenger when your term comes up?

Not to throw cold water, but if you elevate the prestige and status of your title as Managing Partner over the best interests of the firm, don’t wait for a challenger to unseat you: Resign now.

Are you thinking along the lines of, “It’s more complicated than that”? If you h ave in mind that you must do your homework in advance of announcing a decision, in the form of explaining, explaining explaining, and listening and listening and listening to your partners’ inputs, then we violently agree.  You should have done that already and I’m assuming you have.  In other words, in the analysis here I’m assuming you’re past that stage.  If not, return to “go.”

Now, shall we proceed?

Decades ago, Peter Drucker wrote that “Rank does not confer privilege or give power; it imposes responsibility.”  Or, if you want to go back another couple of millennia before that, Proverbs has this to offer (11:2): “When pride cometh, then cometh shame: but with the lowly is wisdom.

It would behoove you to think the same way.

Now back to those restive partners seeing your proposed decision as an existential threat to the social contract between them and the firm.  Here’s where leadership shows itself, or doesn’t.

Fortunately, you’re not alone.  Almost 50 years ago, in 1970, Albert Hirschman published the classic Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which addresses what proper options are available for members of organizations who are dissatisfied with a direction the organization has taken. The book has sold strongly throughout the intervening years and is a classic, if a somewhat obscure one, in the annals of proto-behavioral economics.

And although he was writing as primarily an economist and therefore focused on corporations and for-profit firms, his analysis fits a wide variety of human organizations from the family to street gangs, organized religion to political parties, and even the dynamics of dysfunctional public school districts.

To oversimplify, Hirschman analyzes the options of the dissatisfied member or participant as being:

  • Exit: Simply quit. Leave an organization, if a client switch your buying to another firm, and so forth.
  • Voice: Agitate internally for change; organize petitions, solicit management, file complaints, and of course today invoke social media and hope for virally magic goodness.  And lastly:
  • Loyalty: Decide that, all things considered, you’re going to stay no matter your disagreement.  

Of course, not all options are equally available to members of all social groups.  Exit, for example, is not an option from your family, short of truly cataclysmic schisms.  Nor is voice an option if the manufacturer of your globally distributed commodity product (copy paper, ethernet cables, cardboard boxes) cuts their quality, or if (say) Facebook changes its news feed selection algorithms.  And some law firms are acutely sensitive to “voice,” others bordering on implacable.

But the most critical option here for our purposes is the final one, “loyalty.”

This invokes the social compact I mentioned earlier, and which is pivotal in this context.   May I emphasize the word Hirschman uses? It’s not “stay” or “remain,” nor is it “seethe” or “resent” or “resign yourself.”  It’s loyalty.  You are a loyal member of the team. You had your say and the coach/manager/platoon lieutenant decided you all were going another way.  To put it in the vernacular: Shut up and get with the program.

There is no fourth option.

Specifically, remaining on board and fomenting that fifth column is not permissible, nor is behavior worthy of hormonal junior high-schoolers: No rumor-spinning, no “nasty nice” verbal daggers, no passive-aggressive resistance.  Understand–and live–the reality that as a member of a partnership you are embedded in a reciprocal relationship: The partnership may owe you certain things such as baseline fairness and clarity about its governing principles, but you equally owe the partnership duties such as (thank you, Cardozo), “loyalty.”  

Now we can get back to the Managing Partner.  

When you contemplate making the decision that is certain to invite dissension, you need to be prepared to discuss the principles of Hirschman’s organizational construct plainly and directly.  You will (I assume!) have offered ample opportunity for “voice” ahead of time, so that leaves the unexercised options on the table for your partners at two: “exit” or “loyalty.”

You need to make it clear to them the binary decision in front of them.  If they choose “exit,” everyone lives. It’s a free, and large, country, with a lot of law firms out there.  If they choose “loyalty,” they must understand its full implications. And you must be prepared to call them to account if they cut corners on loyalty. And above all you need to have that conversation utterly free of self-interest or self-regard. If your provocative decision is truly in the long-run best interests of the firm (we can stipulate to that, can we not?), then that is the end of that inquiry.  Its implications for your tenure or the voiced attitudes of your partners are not properly admissible in your thinking.  

And if you have “admitted” them into your decision-making, that means you’ve permitted yourself to be afraid of your partners.

Ultimately, of course, this calls on you to live out the indissoluble link between leadership and courage.  As one who knew something about leadership with existential stakes and constituents who had already tried to play the exit card put it:

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”  (Abraham Lincoln)

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