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Guest comment: Calling all the reluctant leaders

Successful professional people are notoriously reluctant to take on the mantle of leadership. Increasingly, there are excellent reasons why they should, say Professor Laura Empson and David Morley

 ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’

It’s a phrase that carries a useful message in the context of leadership – particularly in professional services. Because high-achieving professionals would, by and large, prefer to stick with what they’ve always done, very successfully. That is what makes them reluctant leaders.

Professional people are different from other similarly driven and successful executives elsewhere in business. The highest achievers in a corporate context are often ambitious for a leadership role and see it as the next career step.

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

Successful professionals have to become highly technically skilled and great at building client relationships. They enjoy achieving mastery of their craft and have a simple and tangible measure of their success – billings. The professional role defines their identity, at least professionally. And since they spend so much time at work, that is usually a big part of how they see themselves generally.

So why trade that in for a leadership role that probably saddles you with a pile of dull and challenging admin, makes you a garbage can for other people’s problems, and which gives you a massive weight of responsibility without the necessary authority? Even if you have great ideas about changing your firm, it can be exhausting overcoming the institutional inertia.

And even those who have recently stepped up to become leaders often hesitate to call themselves leaders. It just doesn’t sit comfortably.

So, why the ambivalence?

It’s an important question. As the legal sector becomes hyper-competitive, firms need increasingly skilful leaders – people equipped with a range of business, managerial, analytical and social competencies that just weren’t necessary when the current crop of law firm leaders was learning to become professionals. Firms are much bigger and more complex, and the margin for error is much smaller.

The reluctant leader is an issue we explore in the latest episode of our podcast series ‘Empson & Morley – Leading Professional People’.

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

The leadership transition is always tricky, not least because it inevitably forces aspiring leaders to ask testing and often uncomfortable questions about their self-identity.

These roles come with a whole set of new requirements. It’s no longer just about what you do. You are also being judged on how you do it – for instance, how you delegate, influence, motivate, persuade.

There is lots of talk in leadership theory about authenticity these days, much of it somewhat misguided.

Not that being authentic is unimportant – far from it. But as Herminia points out, you should not allow the sense of authenticity you have developed so far to doom you to be what you’ve always been.

And there are other related pitfalls.

People contemplating a leadership role may often worry: ‘what’s being asked of me to be a successful leader doesn’t feel like “the real me”’. They begin to see this as a threat to their established sense of authenticity.

But what they are labelling as their ‘authentic self’ is nothing of the sort. Herminia emphasises that what they are identifying is their scared, or cautious self.

Taking on a new role – leading a project, a client relationship, a committee, a sector or something bigger – allows you to escape the trap of remaining in one place.

Instead, it will enable you to experiment and try different versions of what you might want to be. New roles don’t commit you to become something else – but they give you a chance to look at what you are, and what you can bring, from new angles.

Here, role models play a crucial role. But, again, there are dangers to be avoided.

It’s fashionable these days, particularly in the context of diversity initiatives, to stress the need to have role models that look like you. With the representation of women and people from minority backgrounds in senior positions remaining so low, it can be powerful o see people who have made it over all the barriers to progression.

But it is also useful to have role models who are entirely different to you – to not allow yourself to be defined by your demographic characteristics, but look instead for people who represent other essential qualities that are important to you. At times of most significant challenge, it’s helpful to look to people who have skills and capabilities that you know you don’t currently have and need to develop.

And there’s a real (and sometimes career-limiting) danger in fixing your attention on a single role model. Your learning and development will be far more profound and far richer if you look to a range of people for insights and inspiration – so-called ‘mosaic role modelling’.

Even as you develop and become more comfortable with your authentic leadership style, the need to keep looking out for such inspiration will never go away. It’s a process of continuous learning, development and experimentation.

For those professionals reluctant to go on this journey, there’s a helpful question to ask yourself: ‘Will I be happy to be in the same place ten years from now?’

Some will be content to do what they’ve always done and to get what they’ve always got.

Others will not, and will be curious about the many rewards to be found in leadership. If this could be you, do not be afraid to give it a try.

Click here to listen to their latest podcast, ‘Empson & Morley – Leading Professional People’, where Professor Laura Empson and David Morley discuss reluctant leaders with Professor Herminia Ibarra.