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The Five Challenging Paradoxes of Firm Leadership

The jobs of being a firm leader within a law firm should come labeled with a clear warning: This job could seriously change you and how you behave within your firm!

Over the past decade I have had the privilege, through my consulting, research and interviews, to peek behind the veil surrounding the challenge of becoming a new managing partner (or whatever title best signifies your firm’s leader). From candid discussions about the stress involved in looking like you know what you are doing and the huge time demands imposed by your partner’s requests, to feeling disorientated by the scale and scope of the mandate, many professionals quietly struggle with the various pressures that accompany their term in office. I discovered that the great majority of leaders, in any position of responsibility, are at their most vulnerable early in their tenure.

As a new leader you may be surprised to feel confused and indecisive just at the time you want to appear clear-sighted and strong-minded. You may feel overwhelmed and anxious just when you would far rather be seen as composed and dynamic. In fact what I’ve discerned is that there are a number of what I’ll call “leadership paradoxes” – the more or less ongoing dynamics of the job that incumbents wrestle with, to effectively handle the job of being a leader. Here are the top five:

  • Do I shake things up or do I preserve the status quo? (determining appetite for change)

  • Do I strengthen my bonds with people or do I maintain a distance? (developing working relationships)

  • Do I demonstrate that I know what to do or do I ask for help? (appearing knowledgeable)

  • Do I strongly influence the decision I want or do I facilitate a consensus? (making decisions)

  • Do I focus on achieving results or do I accept a degree of uncertainty? (setting action priorities)

Each of us, when serving as a leader, has a natural predilection to favor one approach or the other; to gravitate to one extremity over the other. Therefore, our preference, as to whether to ‘shake things up’’ or to ‘preserve the status quo’ is often ‘hard-wired’ into us, the result of past experience gained before entering into our current leadership position. What seasoned leaders come to learn, is that the only way to navigate these tensions successfully, is to try to manage both ends simultaneously.

Let’s take a look at these top five tensions of leadership — with an eye toward what you, as a new leader, can do to navigate them. To give you a sense of what it truly feels like on the front lines, each of the following sections leads off with a quotation from a real-life law firm leader (kept anonymous for reasons that will be obvious).


(Paradox: Where do I shake things up and where do I preserve the status quo?)

Lawyers are creatures of habit and busy lawyers even more so – the time and effort to “condition” them to new modes of operating should not be underestimated. On a variety of change initiatives, my personal goal is to reduce the time from “that’s the dumbest idea I ever heard” to “we always do it that way” from 5 years to 3 years!

Your first area of tension as a leader is to obtain some sense of agreement from your partners on the direction your firm, office or practice group should pursue. That direction has a great deal to do with the performance you as the leader are charged to deliver. It also has a great deal to do with your partner’s collective appetite for change. “Our dilemma,” explained one managing partner, “is that we hate change and love it at the same time. What my partners want is for things to remain the same but get better.”

There are many questions that you could probably utilize with partners to get a grip on the direction your partners want to go, but two are pivotal:

- What are the critical things we need to change as a firm and why?

- What are the most important things about our law firm that we should be sure to preserve and why?

Things to keep in mind:

• As early as possible as a leader, you must get your partners input into what they see as the group’s preferable direction. Conduct one-on-one interview sessions with your partners – asking each one the same questions to get their insights, solicit their advice and see what themes emerge. Clarify what they want to see you “shake up” and what they want to see you “preserve.” It is wise to have your partners see that you are genuinely engaged and willing to listen before you ever speak about where you think the firm needs to go.

Your interview goals:

  • Absorb information from your partners;

  • Define or confirm the firm’s key challenges;

  • Establish credibility and win trust;

  • Assess your partner’s appetite for change; and

  • Gather input for developing your strategic agenda for going forward

  • Doing nothing but listening, for as long as you can stand it, is the most important thing you can do.

• Ask yourself: How do I begin to make a difference? What do I want to make a difference about? Regrettably, some leaders accept unachievable missions and targets that are far too ambitious, while other become leaders and are told little about what is expected, other then ‘continue to make improvements.’ If you believe that the direction you are being asked to undertake is not achievable or able to be accomplished within the timeframe expected, make your feelings known as early as possible in your tenure.


(Paradox: Where do I need to strengthen bonds with people and where do I need to maintain a distance?)

I realized that fundamentally my relations with my partners would never be the same. Everyone has an agenda when they talk to you. As managing partner, you become more isolated and can never again just be one of the guys.

In what circumstances will people follow you as a leader? Usually, for people to follow they need to have a strong relationship with you, they need to feel that they know you as a human being, and they need to feel a connection and sense of empathy for your beliefs, values, and stated priorities. Concurrently, these very same partners need to feel that you have invested the time to really know and understand them, and have a solid grasp on what they value and hold important.

Without a strong sense of relationship between you and your colleagues, great goals are impossible to set, performance cannot be sustained, major difficulties cannot be overcome, and new opportunities rarely get created.

Alternatively there is also the danger that when a leader tends to lose their independence from their colleagues, they can tend to get identified with one cliché or coalition in the firm. At one firm recently we overhead one of the partners commenting that a particular proposition while rather absurd, would likely get positive attention, only because the originator was a FOG. When we naively asked what a FOG was, the partner responded, “Oh, that is an acronym for Friend Of Greg” . . . the firm’s chairman and managing partner.

However, the tension comes because if you emphasize keeping your distance from colleagues, you may create a sense of aloofness, potential mistrust, and encounter resistance when you try to get things accomplished. You may soon detect increased feelings of division within the firm.

Things to keep in mind:

• Your partners are not interested in your title. They want to know if you care about them as a person, if you care about helping them solve their problems and enhancing their careers. Consider building and maintaining relationships as a critical part of your leadership role. Remember that leading is always done with others, not to them. Everyone wants a cheerleader, someone to believe in them, to help them have a can-do attitude. What can you do to let every partner know that you believe they can become even more of a success?

• As a leader, you will be under a microscope, being observed (your decisions, how you make them, whom you consult with) very carefully (what you say and the signals you send.) You will be barraged with phone calls and e-mails – with questions, requests, and advice. You may need some time to transform some relationships. Good leaders customize the relationship created to each individual.


(Paradox: How do I maintain balance between knowing what to do and asking for help?)

Not withstanding all of the qualities I believe I have, I’m feeling like I’m a fish out of water. In yet how do I tell anyone what I’m going through. I need them to go on believing in me and trusting that I know what I’m doing.

When you are new to the function and responsibility of managing and leading the entire firm, you are starting out with an enormous amount to learn. You soon find that the skills that made you a highly successful practitioner, are not necessarily the same skills that will now transform you into a successful leader.

If you come across to your partners as having all the answers, knowing what to do, and showing everyone how to succeed, you risk being seen as imposing your views, being uninterested in the opinions of other partners, and prone to antagonizing and irritating those same partners.

Alternatively, if as a new leader, you are perceived to overdo ‘the seek help’ side of the spectrum, you may then risk being seen as lightweight and unsubstantial. Partners may soon wonder if you are ever going to get around to adding any value.

So the tension arises as you realize that you should not come across as a ‘know it all.’ But, at the other end of this spectrum, your people will not be confident in the direction that the firm is taking unless you act as though you know precisely where the firm should be going, what it will encounter along the way, and what the destination will look like once it has been reached.

Things to keep in mind:

• Heed the old adage: He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes, but he who doesn’t is a fool for the rest of their life. Most people want the leader to succeed and will be willing to help you learn so that you can add value.

• All learning challenges a person’s self-image. As a leader, you need to recognize that learning will mean that you will have to modify some of your viewpoints and certainties.

• You will function more effectively when you have a confidant – someone that you can trust and confer with, who understands the joys and successes, the difficulties and frustrations of leadership.


(Paradox: When do I strongly influence a decision and when do I just facilitate a consensus?)

In some cases I’ve learned that I need to be more explicit . . . ‘there is where I believe we need to be going and this is what I think we need to do to get there, based on the discussions that I’ve had.’

Deciding who will make what decisions and how decisions will be reached is a fundamental leadership act.

On the one hand, you know that your partners will likely take more responsibility for implementing decisions that they themselves have played a part in making. This argues for wider distribution and a consensus decision-making style.

On the other hand, you know that you must often reconcile the conflicting interests of appealing to partners who don’t want to move too quickly with the market reality that opportunity windows don’t stay open forever. This argues for a quicker decision than obtaining full consensus might allow. Whether to influence or facilitate can be a function of firm culture, leader personality, and situational dynamics. It definitely shapes how your firm will operate.

Things to keep in mind:

• Things can get very stuck with this tension. Of all the tensions noted, you may very well tend to identify most strongly with either influencing or facilitating as your preferred style. Research shows that what we are skilled at is what tends to get reinforced. As a firm leader you will confront more complex situations than you may be used to and more complex than your habits are suited for. If you stick rigidly to only one (influence or facilitate) way of handling the situation you may become far less effective as a leader than someone who works at developing their skills in both of these decision-making formats. What is required, as with the other tensions, is an appropriate dosage of both influencing and facilitating.


(Paradox: How do I maintain focus on achieving results and remain accepting of uncertainty?)

You don’t want to show any weakness, any self-doubt, any concern about making a difficult decision. Remember, you are the firm leader, which means nothing but confidence and high energy when you walk into a room.

As a leader, you are likely to want to achieve some impressive results during your tenure. You will go to considerable lengths to achieve those results since your sense of self-worth, personal reputation, and ultimately, your leadership legacy depends on producing measurable results.

Your challenge is that you inhabit a world infused with uncertainty. So simply being methodical and persevering will not necessarily guarantee that you get the results you want. As a leader, you need to have the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, to live with it, and not to be fazed by it.

You don’t have to like living with a sense of uncertainty, but you must anticipate new developments, recognize trends, and understand change. As a leader, you must stay on top of information about the trends affecting the profession and your various business opportunities. Your future is directly linked to your ability to respond quickly and with flexibility.

Leadership is about credibility. Credibility requires confidence, certainty and capability. Allowing others to see that you lack certainty can be dangerous in the real world. Once doubts about the leader’s certainty begin to form, they can be very difficult to repair. Every leader knows this and every leader fears it.

Things to keep in mind:

• It is very human to stay with doing what is comfortable. Make a conscious effort to turn off the old tapes that are playing in your mind and be willing to let go of the past. The most effective way to minimize the intimidating effect of uncertainty is through planning. The more understanding you have of the likely-to-happen event, the less debilitating the change will be.

• Knowing when to unlock from a declared position and advocate a new one calls for courage. Accept that you will not be 100% right in all of your judgment calls. And beware of the mindset imposed by your professional training and your ego’s need to be right. If any of your decisions turns out to be wrong, and they will, don’t confuse the business need to change direction with feeling that you are looking indecisive.

• It is very human to get discouraged at times. Sometimes your objectives may be criticized by others. Sometimes your goals may seem harder than you thought. There is always an element of personal sacrifice and a need to remain flexible. When unexpected events occur, the value of a leader with a high-faith factor cannot be underestimated. Expecting success to follow a period of change has a positive affect on the attitude of your partners. It is a powerful motivator.


Paradoxes Questionnaire

If you want to manage the paradoxes of leadership more effectively, you must first get a sense of how you currently operate with the different tensions. This questionnaire will help you determine your preferred style.

From among the following two sets of variables, choose one that represents the style with which you’re most comfortable. There are no right or wrong answers. Your choice of A or B represents how naturally disposed you are to act in one way versus the other.

Here is how you might want to think about the results: With all five of these tensions, you cannot decide to operate or behave in one manner or the other, gravitating to one approach over the other. To be effective, you must embrace the paradox of using both approaches at the same time and with varying emphasis, depending on the context.


Shake Things Up:

A. I feel a great need for our firm to get on with making things happen.

A. Things stagnate if we don’t constantly challenge the way we do things around this firm.

Preserve Status Quo:

B. The traditional ‘tried and true’ approaches to solving problems are usually the best.

B. I am often the one to suggest that we stand back and take time to think before we commit to action.


Strengthen Bonds:

A. I get a great deal of satisfaction from helping each of my partners become even more successful than they were.

A. Loyalty, respect and trust between and among partners is a central value of mine.

Maintain Distance:

B. It is important to me that I am valued on the basis of my overall contribution to the firm.

B. I prefer to conduct my relations with partners on a business-like and formal basis.



A. I enjoy having the opportunity to teach others by coaching and contributing my knowledge and experience.

A. I feel confident in what I am stating when contributing to discussions and decisions.

Seek Help:

B. It is important to gather information and consult with partners, before introducing new initiatives.

B. I am comfortable in asking for feedback and advice so that I can improve whatever I am working upon.



A. It is important to be, and be perceived to be, firm and decisive.

A. I think clarity of direction is more important than consultation.


B. It is important to obtaining buy-in to be consultative before decisions are reached.

B. If partners are involved in helping make the decision they take more responsibility for the outcomes.


Focus on Results:

A. I drive very hard toward goals and am not easily distracted.

A. I believe you create your own future by always having clear objectives to work towards.

Accept Uncertainty:

B. I think a clear direction emerges as a result of being attentive to your marketplace and becoming aware of what is needed.

B. ‘Going with the flow’ is often more effective than ‘sticking to your guns.’

Keep Learning as You Go

Transforming into a leader is no small challenge. It is very human to get discouraged at times. Sometimes others will criticize your objectives. Sometimes attaining your goals will seem harder than you thought. Just remember that there is always an element of personal sacrifice and a need to remain flexible when one undertakes a leadership role. When challenges arise or unexpected events occur, the value of a leader with a high-faith factor cannot be underestimated. It is a powerful motivator for every individual you lead.

All successful leaders work through the top tensions over some time during their incumbency. Thinking through these issues at the start of your tenure will give you a more informed basis for formulating your objectives and pursuing your goals.

Copyright 2016


Patrick J. McKenna is an internationally recognized author, lecturer, strategist and seasoned advisor to the leaders of premier law firms. He is widely credited with being one of the profession's foremost authorities on practice group leadership and the author or co-author of seven books including international business bestseller First Among Equals: How To Manage A Group of Professionals with David Maister (Free Press) and most recently, The Changing of The Guard: Selecting Your Next Firm Leader (Ark Publishing). He co-leads First 100 Days: MasterClass For The New Firm Leader, an annual program normally held at the University of Chicago.

Patrick is the subject of a Harvard Law case study entitled: Innovations in Legal Consulting (2011) and recently became the recipient of an honorary fellowship from Leaders Excellence of Harvard Square. He has worked with at least one of the top ten largest law firms in each of over a dozen different countries.

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