Leadership and Risk-Taking

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By David Cruickshank | Aug 25, 2019

Election season has begun in the United States, far too early compared to most countries. The competition for leadership makes me think of leadership contests in law firms. Imagine that the term of your managing partner has expired and two candidates are standing for the post. Though campaigning is unseemly and brief, the contrasting positions of the candidates are clear. One promises to “continue to keep the firm profitable, with slow organic growth and little change.” The other says that she will “review all operations and practices, re-constitute a strategic-planning committee and take risks to innovate and grow.” Both candidates claim that their vision is essential to survive in the current market for legal services. Which candidate would win the leadership contest in your firm?

I have worked with firm leadership enough to see examples of both leadership candidates – the Hunker Down candidate and the Risk Taker. While many firms would be reluctant to elect the Risk Taker, there are some insights from research and objective leadership assessments that can help us understand that candidate.

In leadership training for law firms, I use a behavioral leadership assessment called the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI). This thirty-question inventory allows leaders to assess themselves and allows others to assess their leadership. The LPI derives from international research across many industries, business types and professional services. The work is summarized in The Leadership Challenge, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. In the original research, the business professors surveyed 75,000 respondents about the qualities that would inspire them to follow a leader willingly. The answers were then tested with many more observers of leadership, and the authors set out the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership and developed the leadership assessment that I use today (the LPI). The LPI has been conducted for hundreds of thousands of leaders and it has high validity and strong correlations with effective leadership.

Of the Five Practices, I am going to comment on the third:

  1. Model the Way
  2. Inspire a Shared Vision
  3. Challenge the Process
  4. Enable Others to Act
  5. Encourage the Heart

To “challenge the process” means that a leader will do two main things:

  • Seek opportunities to innovate and grow, and
  • Experiment and take risks.

While some would say that these leadership practices are irresponsible risk-taking in a law firm, I take a different view of the Kouzes and Posner research. I read it as measured risk-taking, not breaking all the china.

They advocate steps like bringing in outside ideas. For example, accountants and management consultants worked out fixed-fee pricing with sophisticated clients long before law firms turned in that direction. They call on leaders to promote innovation and to support partners who seek to innovate – whether in business development, practice efficiency or client services. Effective leaders will challenge the status quo in quiet ways, by allowing new ideas to flow freely and providing regular forums for new ideas for growth and partner development.

When experimenting, the research suggests that small victories count. In the law firm context, this means that a leader will find, seek and support a variety of experiments. Some will fail; some will succeed and translate to the bottom line. Leaders talk constantly about the small victories and look for the next experiment. The Risk Taker in the Leadership Challenge model is not betting the firm. She is promoting incremental growth with trial-and-error innovation. I would add the counsel that this kind of innovation and experimentation has to be paired with strategic focus. Every opportunity to support innovation, every experiment, should be in pursuit of a specific strategic goal.

At Edge, I recommend the Leadership Practices Inventory over other assessments, such as personality assessments, because it addresses behaviors and practical skills. We can model and train for better management behaviors; we can’t change personalities. In our training, we help leaders “challenge the process” in pursuit of strategic goals. If she were educated about the Leadership Challenge, I’d vote for the Risk Taker. In the U.S. election? Too soon to tell.

You are welcome to contact the author to talk about research-based leadership development workshops.

Edge Principal David Cruickshank advises firms on growth strategies and lateral integration programs. In addition to being a lawyer with a master’s from Harvard Law School and an LLB from the University of Western Ontario, he is a trained mediator who has taught at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine Law School.