Why being a visionary leader is critical in times of dynamic change

“What leaders struggle with most is communicating an image of the future that draws others in – that speaks to what others see and feel.”
– James M. Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of “The Leadership Challenge”

As part of my leadership coaching practice, I often ask lawyers to take a 360 leadership assessment.  The lawyer asks those that they work with – other attorneys, staff and their superiors – to assess the lawyer on a range of leadership behaviors, ranging from mentoring skills to the ability to engage others in a clear and compelling vision.  Regardless on the assessment tool we use, I’ve found that lawyers tend to score the lowest on leadership practices related to developing a vision and engaging others in that vision.

You may be saying, “Vision smision.  So, what’s the big deal?”  It turns out that having an effective vision is critical to being a law firm leader today, and those who lack vision skills are at a disadvantage when leading their firms through a time of dynamic change.

What is Vision?

One of my favorite definitions is, “A unique and ideal image of the future for the common good.” This comes from the book, “The Leadership Challenge” by James Kouzes and Barry Posner.   Visionary leaders are those that “envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities and enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations” according to Kouzes and Posner.   Visioning is both an act of articulating a compelling and inviting future state and enlisting others to work towards this shared aspiration.  Leaders with vision frequently exhibit these behaviors:

  • Talks about future trends that influence work
  • Describes a compelling image of the future
  • Appeals to others to share their aspirations of the future
  • Shows others how their interests can be realized
  • Paints the “big picture” of group aspirations
  • Speaks with conviction about the meaning of work.

In a Harvard Business Review article (January 2009, “To Lead, Create a Shared Vision”), Kouzes and Posner describe a research study about visionary leaders,

“In an ongoing project surveying tens of thousands of working people around the world, we asked, “What do you look for and admire in a leader (defined as someone whose direction you would willingly follow)?”  Then we asked, “What do you look for and admire in a colleague (defined as someone you’d like to have on your team)?”

The number one requirement of a leader – honesty – was also the top-ranking attribute of a good colleague.  But the second-highest requirement of a leader, that he or she be forward-looking, applied only to the leader role.  Just 27% of respondents selected it as something they want in a colleague, whereas 72% wanted it in a leader.  Among respondents holding more senior roles in organizations, the percentage was even greater, at 88%.  No other quality showed such a dramatic difference between leader and colleague.

This points to a huge challenge for the rising executive:  The trait that most separates the leader from the individual contributor is something that they haven’t had to demonstrate in prior, non-leadership roles.  Perhaps that’s why so few leaders seem to have made a habit of looking ahead; researchers  who study executive’s work activities estimate that only 3% of the typical leader’s time is spent envisioning and enlisting.”

Why is Vision So Important Now?

I can think of many reasons, but three stand out for their urgency and relevance:

  1. People look to leaders for vision in times of disruption and change. The legal market is in the vortex of change on many fronts, including changing client expectations, increased competition by alternative service providers, changes in technology and legal processes, a dynamic labor market, increased law firm mergers, globalization,  commoditization of some legal markets, and law firm failures, among many others.

    Lawyers and staff are looking to their leaders to help make sense of the chaos and chart a strategy of success and stability for their firm.  “Keep on serving clients well and we’ll be OK” is no longer a viable strategy.   People want to know where their leaders are leading them.

  2. Creating a clear and compelling vision is critical for change leadership. Law firms and legal departments are adapting to this dynamic market by trying to institute a wide range of change initiatives, including diversity and inclusion projects, legal process re-design, client account management models, compensation system changes, shifts to sector-based marketing, leveraging artificial intelligence to better serve clients, improved project management and budget controls, managing to new metrics and many other changes.

John Kotter, in his seminal article, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail” (Harvard Business Review, January 2007), reflects on the importance of vision in change initiatives:

“In every successful transformation effort that I have seen, the guiding coalition develops a picture of the future that is relatively easy to communicate and appeals to customers, stock-holders, and employees.  A vision always goes beyond the numbers that are typically found in five-year plans.  A vision says something that helps clarify the direction in which an organization needs to move.”

  1. Millennials expect leaders to have a vision and engage them in it.  50% of the workforce are now Millennials.  The oldest Millennials are now 31 years old, and rank among young partners in most firms.  This generation, more than those that have come before, are looking for meaning from work.  They want to make a difference in their communities and the world.  They want to understand the big picture and how their contributions fit into to the overall vision and mission.  They want to be inspired and feel part of something important and unique. These young professionals seek to connect with their organization’s values and brand with pride.  And, they are willing leave their jobs if they don’t identify with their leader’s vision and values.

Eight Ways You Can Improve Your Vision

Here are eight practical exercises that will help you become a more visionary leader.

  1. Become a futurist.  Read business, technology and legal news and blogs.  Think about the future and learn about the forces that will affect your practice, the firm and legal market.  Identify future trends and talk about them with others.  Ask them about their views on how these trends will affect clients and legal service providers.  Schedule time to get away from the urgent and operational matters to focus on the future.
  2. Identify opportunities for innovation and change, and engage others about how go about change. Ask followers about their aspirations, fears and vision for the future.  When you understand what motivates people on your team and firm, you can craft a vision that appeals to their aspirations.  Find ways to connect opportunities for change with their aspirations and dreams.
  3. Find ways to articulate your vision. Begin by framing the current practices as inadequate to meet the needs of the future.  Make a chart with three columns.  In the first, list the trends and disruptive forces that affect you and your group or firm.  In the second, list the strategies and tactics that you or your group can do in response to those forces.  In the last column, describe the expected outcomes that will occur in the future from those actions.  These outcomes become the basis for your vision.
  4. WIIFM (What’s in it for me?). Why should people in your team and firm embrace your vision?  What’s in it for them?  Does your vision resonate with their aspirations and dreams?  Does it make them feel energized and committed to work hard and make sacrifices to realize the vision you’ve articulated?  People commit to causes, not plans.  How can you frame your vision as a cause that gives people meaning to work and their lives?
  5. Craft a story to illustrate your vision. Use a metaphor, a word picture, or an example from another industry or time to illustrate the urgency and importance of your vision.  Invite others to embrace the vision so you can share in a “common, higher good” future.  Realize that you may need to adapt your vision (and your story) over time in exchange for commitment and buy-in.  Engaging others, especially in a law firm, often looks a lot like negotiation.
  6. Inspire higher aspirations. Tell a story about a competitor or successful company in a different industry that overcame similar challenges, and ask, “What if we could accomplish that, or more?  What would that mean for you, our clients, the firm, and our communities?  What would it take from you and the firm to make this vision a reality?”
  7. Be willing to spend reputational capital to engage others in your vision. Perhaps one of the reasons so few leaders spend time developing their vision skills is because it is a risky endeavor.  You will need to spend your time and credibility and invest in relationships to engage with others to ignite and sustain commitment.
  8. Make your vision meaningful. An effective vision is not necessarily and carefully wordsmithed, pithy phrase.  Rather it is a “unique and ideal image of the future for the common good,” worthy of the struggle required by the group to achieve its ambitions.  An effective vision is:
  • Set in the context of a clear understanding of disruptive forces and trends
  • Challenges the status quo
  • Signals an openness to new ways of doing things
  • Relevant to the members of the group or firm
  • Sets strategic direction that drives innovation and new business models
  • Differentiates the group/firm from competitors
  • Supports difficult change initiatives
  • Highlights decisions that support the big picture
  • Inspires others to go beyond their comfort zone
  • Gives meaning to work
  • Lifts people up
  • Is attractive and inviting; reflects people’s shared aspirations
  • Results in a better future

Take some time this year to improve your vision.  Those you lead will thank you with increased commitment and engagement.

“Action without vision is drudgery;
Vision without action is merely a dream.
But vision with action
Is the hope of the world”
– Inscription on a 17th century Welsh Church

About the Author

Mark Beese is President of Leadership for Lawyers, a consultancy focused on helping lawyers and other professionals become stronger leaders.  He provides training, coaching and consulting in the areas of leadership development, innovation, and business development.  Mark is an adjunct faculty at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and former adjunct faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership.  He is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and an inductee in the Legal Marketing Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement.  He holds a MBA and BS in Management from the University of Buffalo.  Mark has held senior leadership positions at AmLaw 200 and 100 firms, including Chief Marketing Officer for law firms Holland & Hart and Hodgson Russ.  His clients include many firms on the Global 50, AmLaw 200 and Big 4 accounting firms.  He is a frequent speaker at legal industry conferences including the ABA, LMA, ALA, PDC, INTA and legal networks such as Lex Mundi, Terralex and Meritas.

For more information, visit www.leadershipforlawyers.com and www.designthinkinglegal.com.