Firms are placing their futures at risk if they cannot identify, develop and empower the next generation of leaders.  So it is no surprise that more law firms are investing in leadership development.  For example, according to PaLAW 2009’s 14th annual Managing Partners Survey, cited in the November 23, 2009 issue of The Legal Intelligencer, the number of firms surveyed that provide leadership training at any level increased from 40.5% in 2008 to 67.7% in 2009, almost a 60% increase. 

What does it take to be a good leader?  And do we lawyers have what it takes?

There are numerous theories about the best style of leadership–see  Primal Leadership (2002) by Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee for an informative evaluation of 6 major styles. Apart from style, Richard Daft, author of The Leadership Experience, cites numerous studies that have sifted out five recurring personal attributes of successful leaders: openness to experience, emotional stability, conscientiousness, agreeableness and extroversion.

If you look around for potential leaders in your firm, chances are few of your colleagues possess all five of those attributes.  While conscientiousness is something lawyers tend to have in spades, openness to experience (also known as risk tolerance), emotional stability (or emotional intelligence) and agreeableness (aren’t we hired NOT to be agreeable?) are all factors that in various studies lawyers tend to fall short on. Certainly, we have clear and robust data that most lawyers (over 70%) are introverts, rather than extroverts. 

So can introverts lead?  Successfully, that is?

Yes they can.  If the concern is that introverts tend not to be charismatic, outgoing personalities, Jim Collins’s book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . And Others Don’t provides some comfort. Collins discovered that glitzy, dynamic, high-profile CEOs are actually a hindrance to the long-term success of their corporations. Charismatic leaders are attractive to others, but they may be less effective in drawing people to the mission and values of the organization itself.

Collins contrasts Lee Iacocca, Chrysler’s leader and spokesperson in the 1980s, with Colman Mockler, the CEO of Gillette from 1975 to 1991. While Iacocca almost single-handedly steered his car company away from disaster and put it on the road to prosperity, after his retirement Chrysler’s profits faltered, and the company was sold to a German rival five years later. Apparently Iacocca had done little to invest in his successors or build a culture that would ensure the longevity of Chrysler.

In sharp contrast, Mockler made personal sacrifices and took substantial risks for the long-term success of the company and the profits of the shareholders, and he was so effective that $1 invested in Gillette in December 1976 was worth $95.68 in December 1996 and eventually earned a significant premium when the company was sold to P&G in 2005. Laconic and reserved, Mockler labored in relative anonymity for a big-time executive; he was a man who prioritized the success of his company over ego gratification.

Mockler and executives like him are examples of what Collins calls "level 5 leaders," those who are modest, self-effacing and understated, and display a workmanlike diligence—more plow horse than show horse, they set up their successors for even greater success in the next generation.

Leadership guru Peter Drucker goes further to say that "charisma becomes the undoing of leaders. It makes them inflexible, convinced of their own infallibility, unable to change."

So maybe we introverted lawyers, likely to be low on the charisma meter, may have some hope of mastering leadership. Certainly being people who think before we act and listen before we talk can be useful in leadership roles.

Successful leadership may also be enhanced by introspection–a natural for introverts. Leaders who scrutinize every aspect of their leadership and personality (and that of others) may be able to find internal motivations and assumptions that contribute to dysfunction and inefficiency.

Another way that introverts may be able to surpass the traditional leadership attributes is in their ability to "make sense." Wilfred Drath and Charles Palus at the Center for Creative Leadership explain that "most existing theories, models and definitions of leadership proceed from the assumption that somehow leadership is about getting people to do something."  Essentially cheerleading.  That is an effort that requires relish for and persistence in being extraverted.

But Drath and Palus reimagine leadership as "the process of making sense of what people are doing together so that people will understand and be committed." Leadership, in this view, is a matter of providing interpretation. Leaders can give people a lens and a language for understanding their work and experiences in light of larger purposes. They can help shape the mental frameworks of others so that those people see themselves as making contributions to the mission and direction of their organization, working in community for a common purpose.  Here is an opportunity for the thoughtful introvert to make his or her mark.

In the corporate world over the past decades, leaders have produced greater organizational efficiencies by employing advanced analytics and defined metrics and systems. But most organizations that have successfully manipulated these resources are finding it difficult to extract even greater efficiencies from them over time. Many are turning to their human capital as the next source of growth.  Yet many businesses are realizing the difficulty of identifying and developing leaders, particularly those who can lead this kind of productivity growth.  For example, the 2008 IBM Leadership Survey found that over 75% of CEOs lamented their ability to identify and develop leaders to succeed them.

Law firms should take note. 

Leadership involves not just leveraging the collective knowledge and expertise of an organization. Leadership is also about cultivating and nurturing human capital, particularly in such a talent-dependent industry as ours.  Leaders who recognize the perennial needs of individuals to be appreciated, to be part of a community and to feel they are contributing to the greater good are more likely to be able to raise the productivity of their troops.

And introverts can do that.