Leadership Is an Action, Not a Position

As we move deeper into 2009 one thing I know for sure is that many lawyers, law firm staff members and clients are facing deep uncertainty. So many of us feel we have lost control; that larger forces are at work. At this time more then ever it is important to come to grips with what we can influence and impact.

We all have a leadership role to play in our organizations. When we catch ourselves complaining about the system, about how decisions are made and how things are done it is a good time to come to grips with our own responsibility for making a positive contribution.

Some people might say: “I’m not the boss; I have no power to change anything”. Certainly at times we all feel that way but this is rarely the whole truth. I had the opportunity to interview leadership effectiveness trainer Robert Gifoyle to ask him for his thoughts on leadership. He opened with the statement: “Leadership is an action not a position. “ Leadership is not about the role we hold in an organization; rather it is about the action we choose to take. He followed by saying that if you ask people to cite examples of extraordinary leadership at least one third of the time they will comment on the leadership actions taken by a colleague who is not in a leadership position.

Jane took the initiative. We were struggling and wondered if it was even possible. She just dove in and started things off. She got us into the difficult conversations about barriers and challenges and helped us get through. She made things happen.

Gilfoyle pointed to three key characteristics of leadership-in-action:

  1. The action is other focused: “How can I help people succeed?”
  2. It is future oriented: “I know we are focused on this phase of the project but how does it connect with the end result we are after?”
  3. It is client focused. “How is that going to look from our client’s perspective? How will it help them with their business goals?

At the heart of leadership is the urge to get things moving and to take the initiative to help.

When someone in a peer role takes a leadership approach it is just as effective or even more effective then leadership exercised by a figure of authority. Taking a leadership approach, regardless of your position in the firm or organization, will engender respect. You will be perceived as having leadership qualities. You will provide a huge value to the people around you.

Gilfoyle told me that he has given this approach to leadership the “acid test” with law firm partners. He asked them how they would respond to associates demonstrating leadership in this way and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Gilfoyle also told me that in his experience even when just a small percentage of the staff of an organization take on this leadership approach the quality of the work and productivity are both greatly enhanced.

In our turbulent times this approach to leadership is as more important then ever. Gilfoyle shared with me his thoughts on the vital role of leadership in the current economic environment climate:

We could all sit back and take a victim mentality, and with the state of the world right now who could blame us, but it is important to realise that we are not doomed. Rather it is that the environment in which we live and work has changed. Our job is to figure out how to make the most from this changed environment and discover how we can create value for our clients, our organizations and ourselves. You don’t have to be the President of the United States to become engaged in the process and to demonstrate leadership.

We all have the capacity to contribute. You don’t need to read about it, or sign up for an advanced leadership training program.

Gifolyle reflected:

We can all get far too cerebral, intellectual and mystical even about leadership. It really is just about what we do. It’s behavioural. It’s a choice we make each day. “I think I can help here. I am going to take a chance and see what I can do to move things along.”

Leadership is quite simply about choice and behaviour. The best start is to test it out. Give it a try and see what happens.

(Authors note: For more examples of putting leadership into action check out Christina Bielaszka-DuVernay’s post to the Harvard Management Update: “How to Lead When You are Not the Boss”. She provides a summary of the five key leadership actions outlined in the book Lateral Leadership: Getting Things Done When You’re Not the Boss (2nd ed., Profile Books, 2004), by Harvard negotiation specialist Roger Fisher and coauthor Alan Sharp.)

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