Lessons in leadership

Issue July/August 2017 By Jeffrey N. Catalano

The occasion to lead any organization, regardless of its composition, affords one the unique opportunity to learn about effective leadership. This happens both by reading about leadership and through trial and error. It also happens through close observation of other successful leaders. During this past year, I have had interactions with so many impressive judges, legislators, bar presidents, community and non-profit leaders, and section chairs. These are leaders who are not simply caretakers of the authority with which they are entrusted, they are politically talented.

By "politically talented," I mean possessing not just the qualities of being able to work a room and give a good speech. I am referring to those extra-special attributes that get things done through conversations, collaboration, and consensus, all of which happen before the issue, event, or project is cast in the spotlight.

While many of these concepts are familiar, it helps to be reminded of them regardless of whether one is leading an association or managing others in a law firm.

Take Action

Opportunities to improve the success of an organization or firm are abundant if one is listening and paying close attention. They may also be fleeting (especially if one has a one-year term of office). I have seen so many great things accomplished by leaders who first saw an opportunity and took bold and timely action.

Choose Carefully

Acting boldly, of course, does not mean being impetuous. The idea, plan, or project must comport with the mission and capacity of the team, firm, or organization. Whether it's your idea or someone else's, good leaders test proposals, assess their quality and investment, elicit challenges and, if warranted, steer them toward a productive course. Ultimately, this process helps discover and create energy for exciting potentials.

Build consensus and collaborations

Consensus and collaboration are the gravitational forces that turn potential into kinetic energy. This process also creates intriguing opportunities for symbiotic solutions and ideas to emerge. It requires a willingness to expose the idea, project, or program to acceptance or rejection. Obtaining consensus and collaboration eventually ensures that there is necessary broad-based buy-in to create momentum.

Invite feedback

Whether an event, a program, or a trial is successful, conducting a debrief afterward helps to determine what should be repeated, improved upon, or eliminated. This also applies to your own manner of leadership - invite others to give feedback on what works and does not work. I have learned that people have ideas they would love to share with a manager or leader who is willing to actively listen.

Convey appreciation

I have seen so many good leaders and managers generously acknowledge and applaud those responsible for a successful endeavor. Not only is this respectful, but it creates dedication and loyalty. It also improves the chances of future success and growth if those who worked hard are given appropriate and frequent appreciation.

Control the clock

I subscribe to the old maxim of "always leave them wantin' more." People are busy, and their time has to be respected. I have observed that controlling meetings and limiting speakers can be done respectfully if people are informed beforehand on how much time they have; no one seems offended when the ultimate goal is efficiency. Plus, if participants know they will not be kept overtime, they are more likely to show up next time. Of course, a good agenda with important and interesting issues and speakers is also essential.

Have fun!

In my experience, puns, pranks and practical jokes have an important role. Managing and leading can be stressful, exhausting, and sometimes frustrating. As Milton Berle once said, "[l]aughter is an instant vacation." I have been fortunate to be surrounded by humorous people who enjoy a good laugh in addition to being hard-working, intelligent, and dedicated to our profession.

In conclusion, the experience of leading this terrific association has been one of the most informative and rewarding journeys of my career. I am deeply grateful for this honor.