According to an article in the January 2015 McKinsey and Company Quarterly Newsletter, Decoding leadership: What Really Matters,”[o]ver 90 percent of CEOs are already planning to increase investment in leadership development because they see it as the single most important human-capital issue their organizations face. And they’re right to do so: earlier McKinsey research has consistently shown that good leadership is a critical part of organizational health, which is an important driver of shareholder returns.”

But one of the questions raised by legal departments and legal firms, as well as companies the world over, is what type of leadership training really impacts performance?  What exactly are we trying to train our leaders to do?  McKinsey and Company has an answer, which we quote:

“Our most recent research… suggests that a small subset of leadership skills closely correlates with leadership success, particularly among frontline leaders. Using our own practical experience and searching the relevant academic literature, we came up with a comprehensive list of 20 distinct leadership traits. Next, we surveyed 189,000 people in 81 diverse organizations [in location, size, industry and effectiveness] around the world to assess how frequently certain kinds of leadership behavior are applied within their organizations. Finally, we divided the sample into organizations whose leadership performance was strong (the top quartile of leadership effectiveness as measured by McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index) and those that were weak (bottom quartile)…

“What we found was that leaders in organizations with high-quality leadership teams typically displayed 4 of the 20 possible types of behavior; these 4, indeed, explained 89 percent of the variance between strong and weak organizations in terms of leadership effectiveness.”  Those four are:

“1. Solving problems effectively. The process that precedes decision making is problem solving, when information is gathered, analyzed, and considered. This is deceptively difficult to get right, yet it is a key input into decision making for major issues (such as M&A) as well as daily ones (such as how to handle a team dispute).

2. Operating with a strong results orientation. Leadership is about not only developing and communicating a vision and setting objectives but also following through to achieve results. Leaders with a strong results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the highest-value work.

3. Seeking different perspectives. This trait is conspicuous in managers who monitor trends affecting organizations, grasp changes in the environment, encourage employees to contribute ideas that could improve performance, accurately differentiate between important and unimportant issues, and give the appropriate weight to stakeholder concerns. Leaders who do well on this dimension typically base their decisions on sound analysis and avoid the many biases to which decisions are prone.

4. Supporting others. Leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel. By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges. They intervene in group work to promote organizational efficiency, allaying unwarranted fears about external threats and preventing the energy of employees from dissipating into internal conflict.

We’re not saying that the centuries-old debate about what distinguishes great leaders is over or that context is unimportant. Experience shows that different business situations often require different styles of leadership. We do believe, however, that our research points to a kind of core leadership behavior that will be relevant to most companies today, notably on the front line. For organizations investing in the development of their future leaders, prioritizing these four areas is a good place to start.”

Looking at law firm and law department leadership priorities, the last two behaviors outlined by McKinsey are ones that may not be fully appreciated.  Seeking different perspectives involves a degree of listening to others and encouragement and validation of others’ opinions that not all lawyer leaders exhibit.  Often, the lawyer leader operates from a more hierarchical, authoritarian orientation: “I know what is best and my job is to get you to acknowledge and do that.” Even without questioning the truth of that proposition, different perspectives are invaluable in vetting it.

The failure in the legal workplace to support others or recognize that trait as a valuable leadership skill is even more apparent. The operative word here is understanding and sensing how others “feel,” a recognition and exploration of emotions that is often anathema  to the legal mindset of “only the facts, ma’am.”  The typically low resilience of lawyers makes us particularly in need of the kind of leadership support that inspires and helps overcome the myriad challenges omnipresent in legal practice.

Leadership training is a valid exercise that legal firms and law departments should realize substantial returns from IF the training is for the appropriate skills.  Which is not to say that business development success or financial expertise or subject matter competence is irrelevant, but let’s make sure our leadership training and succession programs are focusing on all four of these priorities that McKinsey has identified.