Leadership when it counts: learning from industries with terminal consequences.

Author:Cross, Darryl
Position:Cover story

It is encouraging that many law firms are now using or considering programs to improve the leadership skills for professionals at their firm. However, the fact that this is a relatively new focus at many firms means that, in the past, having well-developed and formally trained leaders wasn't always a priority.

Some in organizations with great momentum may wonder if strong leadership is necessary at all. However, the friction of the market and the rapid acceleration of change has made leadership a differentiating factor between firms that are succeeding and those that are chasing the pack.

In some domains, high-performing organizations have never had such luxuries. Organizations that employ astronauts, military units or police officers deal with a concept known as terminal consequences. When things go wrong, they go really wrong. There is no room for error, and there are no second chances. This pass/fail world requires extremely effective leadership. It is not optional.

Even though law firms do not operate under conditions with terminal consequences, they do operate with binary ones. They win or lose cases, deals, laterals, RFPs, clients and prospects based on their performance. Demanding clients, increased competition and the coming wave of artificial intelligence make these margins for error even smaller. Perhaps the best place to learn about leadership is from those to whom it matters most.

Perspective: Vision, Direction and Communication

If a group is lost in the forest, they can try a few different methods to get out. They could rely on a few key individuals who have survival skills. Someone could take charge and come up with the most efficient way to conserve resources. Or, they could ask a leader to climb a tree and communicate the right direction.

Leadership is not a position. It is a perspective. It is different from management, which John Kotter famously described as coping with complexity. Leaders, on the other hand, set the right direction and exhibit situational awareness.

Captain Christopher Cassidy is a former Navy SEAL and current chief astronaut at NASA. He has traveled to space twice and knows from all his experiences the importance of perspective for a leader. He stated, "Situational awareness is one of the most critical functions of a leader. People can be highly talented and highly skilled, but if they can't prioritize and make decisions about what's important and what's urgent, they can't execute efficiently."

It is not...

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