Don’t Lead Like a Grumpy Lawyer

Check out this photo of the snarling cat–when you look at it, does it bring to mind anyone in particular you know? I think we’ve all encountered someone who leads like this, and maybe in the past two months, that person has even been us. Sometimes we may find ourselves in that place and know there’s a better way, but not be able to access it. But if you’re not hissing out commands, what’s the best way to get the most out of yourself and others?

As a patent attorney working with high-tech superstars in the start-up world, I noticed that the most successful leaders didn’t just have great skills and knowledge, or use a special technique; they actually had an entirely different perspective that drove how they dealt with themselves, their situations, and the people around them. And I could see that my own style of leadership left a lot to be desired, and that if I too could change my perspective, I could be a lot more effective.

The leadership framework that finally made a big difference for me is the Five Levels of Leadership. It’s not a tool that gauges personality or strengths. It’s not a fixed leadership plan that shows you a “leadership mold” to model yourself after. It’s more like a map that shows you both generally and in the moment how you are showing up. And, like a map, when you know where you are, it suggests where you might want to go.

What is Leadership?

Unlike other professions, lawyers don’t take a systematic approach to developing their leadership, which is somewhat surprising given their systematic approach to most everything lawyer-ly. One organization that knows something about leadership, the US Army, defines it in the following way:

Leadership is the process of influencing people by providing them with purpose, direction, and motivation while you are operating to accomplish your mission and goals and improve the organization.

Though we tend to think of the Army as a command-and-control type of organization, they clearly recognize that being a leader is complex. It involves character attributes, personality traits, personal and organizational values, skills like domain knowledge, communication, or emotional intelligence–not to mention decision making, culture, and productivity.

Ultimately, leadership is all about influencing yourself and others to create success and high performance.

The 5 Levels of Leadership

Here is the 5 Levels of Leadership framework. You can also think of it as 5 modes or perspectives from which we lead. We will all experience each of these modes at different times and in different situations. The levels operate on a log scale, with each level being much more effective than the one before it.

Level 1 Leadership: The “Victim” Mode

When you are operating in this mode of leadership, you will continually experience things happening TO YOU, and you’ll feel unable to exert any control over your situation; you’ll be at the effect of life’s circumstances.

You’ll likely be stuck in crisis mode, focused on problems rather than solutions and on what you DON’T want instead of what you DO want. In this mode, it’s hard to make good plans about where you are going. You are also likely to have low energy, low passion for your mission, and difficulty inspiring and motivating others.

Groups with a lot of this leadership level will eventually implode, because they are characterized by low engagement, high stress, and lack of focus, and because they live in survival mode.

Level 2 Leadership: The “Fighter” Mode

When you are in Level 2 mode, you will be focused on self-protection, control, and judgment. Things will be black or white, right or wrong, and there will be winners and losers–so the goal becomes winning.

For this leader, it’s very easy to slip into an authoritarian style of leading; you will want to prove that your way is the best way and you will want control over the situation. Thus, you may tend to micromanage others and fail to listen to their opinions or suggestions. You will have expectations that others aren’t meeting and will fail to see what others are doing well.

This mode of leading can actually be very motivating, but motivation will be rooted in fear or anger, and employees or colleagues will be dissatisfied and disengaged, and productivity will falter.

Groups operating in this mode are usually short-sighted and have fight-or-flight survival tendencies. Understandably, interpersonal relationships suffer. Members are asked to take on more than they can handle, and leaders don’t get buy-in before making demands. Command-and-control and blame-and-shame cultures fit in this category.

Level 3 Leadership: The “Rationalizer” Mode

When you lead from Level 3, you will have a high priority on responsibility. You will take responsibility for your actions, and realize that what you think and feel is about YOU, and not about other people. You will motivate yourself and others by releasing the negativity that is present in the Victim and Fighter modes; by forgiving and compromising; and by encouraging cooperation, teamwork, and productivity.

When you are in this mode, you can respond to a crisis or challenge with confidence and tact, you will regularly access your emotional intelligence, and will make decisions from logical analysis rather than pure emotion. You will be positive and focus on solving the problem.

Groups with high Level 3 leadership will focus on utilizing their members to incorporate their talents into the whole group. Sometimes, there will be a tendency to prioritize short-term goals and to avoid conflict for the sake of keeping the peace and moving forward. Generally, things are good, but groups like this can settle for “good enough” and not reach their true potential.

Level 4 Leadership: The “Caregiver” Mode

When you are a Level 4 leader, you will highlight the servant aspect of leadership. Your concern will be providing service and helping others; you will find purpose in making things work well for others. You will make solid connections with others, and they will experience you as trustworthy, respect-worthy, and loyal. You will go to bat for employees like they are family.

In this mode, you will be concerned about how your decisions impact the individuals around you and will take a nurturing approach to communication and management. You can effectively engage and support others, show gratitude, and promote growth on a variety of levels.

Groups with this level of leadership don’t operate out of competition but see each member as having unique gifts and talents to be optimized in the service of everyone. Sometimes, these groups can get caught up in the drama of its members and be so focused on the individuals that they struggle to be productive.

Level 5 Leadership: The “Opportunist/Convergent” Mode

Level 5 leadership will allow you to consistently see opportunities in every situation, and to bring people and resources together to create agreement and understanding. There will be very little judgment of people or circumstances as “good” or “bad”; being able to release judgment is a key skill to operating in this mode.

At this level, you will be able to capitalize on whatever possibilities present themselves. You will focus on seeking understanding and have a high degree of curiosity and confidence. You can create synergy in connections and relationships that lead to high performance. You can recognize and create meaning in your experiences, and will be inspiring to others.

Groups in this mode are usually highly successful, and invest in their members at every level of the organization. Members truly enjoy being a part of this group. If not balanced, this level can indulge in high risk-taking or being paralyzed by the many possibilities that present themselves.

So, Don’t Lead Like a Grumpy Lawyer?

Everyone has his or her own style of leadership that uniquely blends these modes. That’s why you can’t copy someone else’s style of leadership; it doesn’t work. You have to take your leadership understanding, skills training, soft skills training, experience and trials, and find your own authentic and effective style. This will include assessing different situations and choosing the combination of modes that will be most effective for you.

When you are under stress, you will tend to default to the “Victim” or “Fighter” modes of leadership. The “Fighter”, especially, will come across like a snarling cat.

  • You can begin to recognize how these modes show up for you in your personal and professional life
  • You can pause to consider how you are leading yourself and others in the moment
  • You can assess your current approach and its effectiveness
  • You can shift your level of leadership to reflect a clear and conscious leadership choice that promotes high performance and success

You can learn how to ask yourself three crucial questions:

How am I leading right now?

How do I want to lead right now?

What do I need to change?

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