Visitor Commentary: Attraction to all reluctant leaders

Successful professionals are notoriously reluctant to take the lead. There are increasingly good reasons why they should, say Professor Laura Empson and David Morley

“If you always do what you always have, you will always get what you always have.”

It’s a phrase that has a useful message in the context of leadership – especially in professional services. Because high profile professionals, by and large, would prefer to stay very successful at what they have always done. That makes them reluctant leaders.

Professional people differ from other similarly motivated and successful leaders in other business areas. The high performers in the corporate context often strive for a leadership role and see this as the next step in their career.

But it just doesn’t work that way in law firms and other professional services organizations, for perfectly rational reasons.

Successful professionals must be highly technically qualified and be able to build excellent customer relationships. They enjoy mastering their craft and have a simple and tangible measure of their success – accounting. The professional role defines their identity at least professionally. And since they spend so much time at work, it’s usually a big part of their overall self-image.

So why trade that for a leadership role that will likely saddle you with a bunch of boring and challenging administrators, make you a garbage can for others’ problems, and give you a massive weight of responsibility without the required authority? Even when you have great ideas for changing your business, breaking down institutional inertia can be a strain.

And even those who recently rose to leadership positions are often reluctant to refer to themselves as leaders. It just doesn’t sit comfortably.

So why the ambivalence?

That’s an important question. As the legal sector becomes more competitive, companies increasingly need skilled leaders – employees who have a range of business, managerial, analytical, and social skills that were simply not required when the current number of law firm leaders learned to become professionals. Companies are much larger and more complex, and the error rate is much lower.

The reluctant leader is a topic we explore in the latest installment of our podcast series, Empson & Morley – Leading Professional People.

To this end, Professor Herminia Ibarra joined us. Herminia, who leads the Women in Leadership program at London Business School, has authored countless Harvard Business Review articles on leadership. Her books include Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, and The Authenticity Paradox.

The change in leadership is always difficult, not least because it inevitably forces prospective managers to ask tests and often uncomfortable questions about their self-identity.

These roles bring with them a whole range of new requirements. It’s no longer just about what you do. You will also be judged on how you do it – for example how you delegate, influence, motivate, convince.

In leadership theory these days, there is a lot of talk about authenticity, a lot of it something wrong.

Not that it doesn’t matter to be authentic – far from it. But, as Herminia points out, you shouldn’t let the sense of authenticity you’ve developed so far doom you to be who you always have been.

And there are other related pitfalls.

People who contemplate leadership often worry: “What is asked of me to be a successful leader doesn’t feel like” the real me. ” They are starting to see this as a threat to their established sense of authenticity.

But what they call their “authentic selves” is nothing like that. Herminia emphasizes that what they identify is their fearful or cautious self.

When you take on a new role – a project, a client relationship, a committee, a sector, or something larger – you can escape the trap of staying in one place.

Instead, you can experiment with it and try different versions of what you might want to be. New roles don’t oblige you to become anything else – but they do give you the opportunity to see what you are and what you can bring with you from new angles.

Role models play a crucial role here. But here too dangers are to be avoided.

It is fashionable these days, especially when it comes to diversity initiatives, to emphasize the need to have role models who look like you. Because the representation of women and people with minority backgrounds in leadership positions remains so low, it can be powerful to see people who have made it over all barriers to progress.

But it is also useful to have role models who are completely different from you – not to be defined by your demographics, but to look for people who represent other essential characteristics that are important to you. In times of greatest challenge, it is helpful to reach out to people who have skills and abilities that you know you do not currently have and need to develop.

And there is a real (and sometimes career-limiting) danger of drawing your attention to a single role model. Your learning and development will be far deeper and richer when you reach out to a range of people for insight and inspiration – something called “mosaic role modeling”.

Even as you develop and become more comfortable with your authentic leadership style, the need to always look for such inspiration will never go away. It is a process of continuous learning, developing and experimenting.

For those professionals who are reluctant to take this journey, there is a helpful question: “Am I happy to be in the same place in ten years?”

Some will be content to do what they always did and get what they always have.

Others won’t and will be curious about the many rewards that can be found in the guide. If it could be you, don’t be afraid to try.

Click here to listen to the latest Empson & Morley – Leading Professional People podcast, in which Professor Laura Empson and David Morley speak with Professor Herminia Ibarra about reluctant leaders.

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