“Having the Vision Thing”: The Myth of Visionary Leadership

Topics: Client Relations, Efficiency, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership, Talent Development

The other day I came across yet another article, by yet another supposed leadership expert, that prescribes that to be a truly great law firm leader you need to develop and communicate a vision. And, while almost every book on leadership suggests that a true leader needs to have a vision (with more than 400 books listed under “Visionary Leadership” on Amazon) I think it is nice in theory, sounds profoundly intelligent as a concept, but is absolute nonsense in its application with highly talented professionals.

I believe one aspect of how “having a vision” is nice in theory, was confirmed by the interviews conducted of 150 managing partners by my U.K. colleague Rob Lees, co-author of When Professionals Have to Lead. Rob related to me this one example from his findings:

The managing partner of one of the firms we talked to explained how he had come back from Harvard Business School’s Leading Professional Service Firms program with renewed energy and a determination to drive the firm forward. So, he outlined his vision of moving the firm from its regional base to becoming a leading national firm to his partners and talked about what they needed to do to get there. But, to his abject disappointment, nothing happened. To the partners, the vision was just too aspirational; achievable only through a merger, which they felt they would be on the wrong side of. Concerned about the lack of action, the managing partner visited all of the offices to talk through the plans and, during these visits, the partners’ concerns surfaced.

Whither the Mission Statement?

Meanwhile, in his book Great by Choice, Jim Collins tells us that his findings dismiss several closely held business world beliefs… such as the notion that successful leaders are “bold, risk-seeking visionaries.” Rather, Collins concludes that the most successful leaders are “disciplined,” “empirical” and “paranoid,” building on verifiable results and constantly anticipating what could go wrong.

Remember mission statements? Mission statements first came into vogue in the 1990s. A single-page document filled with more platitudes than you’d find in the average prayer book, spelling out your firm’s business mission. No one remembered the darn things, it was business as usual, and the document didn’t have the profound impact on the fortunes of firms that their creators had hoped for. The mission statement exercise was quickly forgotten — except at those few firms who chose to have them laminated as cards for everyone to keep in their wallet.

I am not aware of one single firm that has invested partner time in articulating a mission or vision statement that has actually been implemented.

Then we were informed on how every firm needs “a vision” to succeed. It was a new name, but quickly became the same old silly exercise. All your skeptical partners exchange winks and knowing glances. The Executive Committee will have to be indulged one more time. In all cases the result was to be the same — having a vision changed nothing! I am not aware of one single firm (and certainly not among those achieving above-average market performance) that has invested partner time in articulating a mission or vision statement that has actually been implemented.

And I have for years had the audacity to challenged lawyers at multiple legal conferences to please give me just one example of a law firm, anywhere, wherein the firm leader proclaimed a vision and had all of his or her partners get excited, eager to move forward and behave in concert with that articulated vision. “Yeah, take me to the promised land!” It may be theoretically possible, but I have yet to find one real live example.

Creating a Shared Vision

What most concerns me is seeing brand new firm leaders who just naturally struggle with trying to get a handle on the magnitude and scope of having to now lead an entire law firm and being repeatedly told or reading that they are ineffective unless they have articulated their vision. Partners definitely need to have some sense of a shared direction — and please do notice that word “shared.”

It takes me back to a very important principle that I learned early in my consulting career when a very senior statesman, a founder of a major law firm told me the one thing I needed to know about working with lawyers:

No lawyer ever gets excited about, enthusiastically supports, and willingly works to promote any change, any idea, any new direction or strategy — that they themselves have not been part in formulating.

That’s why a shared direction needs to be facilitated by an effective leader; and why I think that telling leaders that need to articulate their personal vision, is just not a good idea.