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Teaching Lawyers, And Others, To Be Leaders

Leadership ConceptIt was the tease headline on the cover of The Economist magazine (October 19–25 issue) that got my attention (dead tree edition only): “Washington’s Lawyer Surplus.” I thought it would be an article on the hard times that have befallen many Washington law firms, but it was not. Rather, the article itself was titled “Lawyers, beware lawyers: The dangers of taking a legalistic approach to America’s budget wars.”

Having written my last two columns on that subject, I decided to give it a read, only to discover that it really was not so much about the budget war either.  In fact, the core of the column—written by the unidentified “Lexington” columnist—was about lawyers as leaders, with a passing mention of a new book on the subject by Stanford law professor Deborah L. Rhode.

After I checked Ms. Rhode’s credentials (they’re impressive), I could not resist reading what she had to say about a subject that has long been of interest to me.  Given the remarkable failure that we are seeing in contemporary Washington lawyers and with our political leaders, Professor Rhode has certainly addressed an important and timely topic.

Not Just Another Leadership Book

As a frequent flyer, I often browse in airport bookstores, which carry lots of titles about leadership, and related topics like management and decisionmaking.  Most of these books are of the “self-help” or “how to” genre, like one I recently read flying across the country: Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn: Life’s Greatest Lessons Are Gained From Our Losses by John C. Maxwell.  Not bad, but very much of the self-help/how-to genre, which always makes me wonder about the validity of the claims.

Deborah Rhode has not written another self-help/how-to  work, but rather something more substantial.  Indeed, she notes in her opening page that “[a]lthough leadership development is now a forty-five billion dollar industry, and an Amazon search reveals close to 88,000 leadership books in print, the topic is largely missed in legal education.”  This missing part of legal education is the subject of Ms. Rhode’s book Lawyers As Leaders, published by Oxford University Press. This work is both a scholarly analysis of the problem, and a persuasive case for a solution. Most importantly, her analysis and contentions are well documented.

The only thing I found missing from Rhode’s book, and this is not really a criticism, but rather something that I wish she had added, is a bibliography.  She has spent countless years researching leadership, and thus become familiar with the scholarship in the field. Moreover, she has written widely (including a book with my Justia co-columnist Joanna Grossman), and so I would be interested in which works among those 88,000 titles, if any, she finds worth reading. Some of her thinking can be found in the end notes of Lawyers As Leaders, where she cites works she has drawn upon in clarifying her own thinking and documenting it. But I would love to know, for example, the best ten books she has found on developing leadership skills.

The Legal Profession’s Leadership Problem 

Ms. Rhode notes that many of “our nation’s most revered and most reviled public figures have been attorneys: Abraham Lincoln and Thurgood Marshall; Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon.” And she adds that the legal profession is “well-represented at all levels of leadership, as governors, state legislators, judges, prosecutors, general counsel, law firm managing partners, and heads of corporate, government, and non-profit organizations.”

Currently, the dominant profession of the U.S. Congress is former attorney with almost 30 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives (128 members) trained as lawyers, along with almost half of the U.S. Senate (45 members).  Lawyers have also dominated the U.S. presidency with 26 of 44 being attorneys:  J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, J. Q. Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Polk, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Hayes, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge, F. Roosevelt, Nixon, Ford, Clinton and Obama.

It is in this broad context of attorneys’ frequently becoming leaders that Ms. Rhode states her case: “My central claim is that the legal profession attracts a large number of individuals with the ambition and analytic capabilities to be leaders, but frequently fails to develop other qualities that are essential to effectiveness.”  Allow me to rephrase what she is saying: Lawyers are often drawn to leadership positions, but they are not very good at leading. To the contrary, with rare exceptions, she found that legal training and practice do not prepare attorneys to lead.

She finds that attorneys are not given sufficient leadership training, either while when in law school, or after leaving. (I looked at the curriculum of a number of law schools, and while this is beginning to change, and a few do offer courses or seminars in leadership, compared with graduate business schools, where there is extensive leadership training, leadership training appears to be an afterthought in law schools.) This, of course, raises the basic question of whether such a skill can actually be taught.

Leadership Skills: Are Some Born With It, or Are Such Skills Acquired?

There is no agreement whatsoever on what defines a leader.  Rhode found over 1500 definitions and forty distinctive theories.  Yet she nicely distills the nature of leadership from the literature and studies by addressing the characteristics, challenges, and styles of leadership.

I was delighted that she addressed head on the once much-debated question of whether “great leaders are born not made,” by reporting that “contemporary research suggests” that, in fact, leaders are made, rather than born with leadership skills. Drawing on the work of Roger Gill’s Theory and Practice of Leadership (Sage, 2006) and Joseph Rost’s Leadership for the Twenty-First Century (Greenwood, 1991), Rhode rejects the notion of those who think great leaders are only natural-born creatures.  Rather, she concludes that these are skills that can be developed and learned.

In short, research shows that those who learn well can become excellent leaders, a point that Rhode outlines under heading like, “The Learning Process,” “Obstacles to Learning,” “Learning Strategies,” “Organizational Learning,” and her material regarding the paths followed by leaders, such as “Self-Awareness,” “Family Commitments and Cultural Biases,” “The Role of Chance,” and “Mentoring and Advice.”

Rhode explains that while effective leadership must vary by context and situations, “certain competencies are central” to most all leadership positions.  She focuses on five such core capabilities: (1) individual and group decisionmaking, (2) influence (i.e., strategies that motivate followers), (3) fostering innovation and managing change, (4) conflict management (how to negotiate, mediate, and resolve disputes), and (5) communication skills.

This brings her to what felt to me like the heart of this book: The need for ethical leadership, which raises its own unique issues for leaders both in and out of the legal profession.

Ethics in Leadership

Noting that “everyone agrees about the need for ethical leadership,” Rhode finds that the problems arise “over what is require[d] and how it can be achieved.” She is not particularly interested in the “perfunctory or platitudinous” approach that broadly calls for “integrity, honesty, fairness, and compassion,” which typically fails to recognize complexities and problems with all-purpose standards that may ignore reality.  There is a lot of this in the popular literature and she notes that these approaches—calls for “moral courage,” or “moral excellence,” or the overused “moral compass”—seldom provide “any real insights about how to balance competing concerns,” usually offering examples that “are generally dumbed-down, gussied-up morality plays in which virtue is its own reward.”

For Rhode “ethical leaders” are those “who exemplify integrity and social responsibility in their personal conduct, and who institutionalize practices that encourage such conduct by others. The concept entails not only compliance with formal ethical rules, but also adherence to widely accepted norms of honesty, fairness, civility, and respect for social interests.” Giving substance to this concept, Rhode examines four characteristics of ethical conduct developed by James Rest, Director of the Center for Ethical Development at University of Minnesota, in his Moral Development: Advances in Research and Theory (1994): “Moral Awareness” (recognizing the ethical issues in a situation); “Moral Reasoning” (understanding cognitive biases and deciding on ethically sound actions); “Moral Intent” (giving priority to moral values over other interests like power, money, or peer approval); and “Moral Behavior” (not merely recognizing the proper action but having the “ego strength” to pursue it).

To my surprise, Rhode drives home her analysis by providing a perfect case study: Watergate—a subject about which I know a great deal.  But I did not know that she was drawing on my testimony and writings about it until I started reading her book. Rhode writes, “The Watergate scandal offers a particularly illuminating case history of how the good go bad, in part because of the sheer number of lawyers involved.” She quotes from my testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee where I explained why I had placed asterisks by the names of people I had found involved because I had been struck by my own reaction: “How in God’s name could so many lawyers get involved in something like this?”

Over the years, I have looked for the answers to that question. When doing my Watergate CLE programs, I have suggested different reasons depending on who among the some twenty lawyers who got on the wrong side of the law during Watergate was involved: incompetence, the lack of rules of ethics at the time, arrogance toward the law, and factors relating to the psychology of cover-ups.  Rhode finds the answers to my question also “reflect failure in moral awareness, reasoning, intent, and behavior along the lines” that she describes in her book. She adds “Willful Ignorance,” “Cognitive Bias,” and “Group Pressure.” She is correct, and our answers do not conflict. Rather, she is shining a different light on the same problem.

For me, Rhode’s Chapter 5 “Ethics in Leadership” and her Chapter 6 “Leadership Scandals” offer wonderful insights that she can be sure I plan on sharing with others when discussing Watergate. But her entire book is filled with treasures, revelations for anyone interested in, or concerned about, lawyers and leadership, including the closing chapters’ material on the need for diversity in leadership, as well as practical matters like leadership at law firms and for social change.

Every lawyer and law student in America should read this book and then get busy learning the skills and acquiring the outlook that Deborah Rhode has outlined and explained in Lawyers as Leaders. Not only will all readers benefit, but everyone will gain.  Needless to say, we can never have too many potential leaders.

John DeanJohn W. Dean, a Justia columnist, is a former counsel to the president.
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