Washington Lawyer

The Hallmarks of an Effective Leader

From Washington Lawyer, November 2015

By James Sandman

on-leadershipI believe that your personal character and how you treat people have a lot to do with whether you ascend to a position of leadership and, if you do, how successful you are.

I believe that civility and professionalism are critical to success, and I would like to emphasize three aspects of them that are particularly important: integrity, treating others with respect, and valuing diversity in the broadest sense of that term.

Integrity involves being straightforward, trustworthy, and dependable. It means being the kind of person that others can make handshake deals with. It means not playing games, not shading the truth, not phrasing things in a way that is literally true but actually misleading. It means being honest about little things as well as big ones. It involves acknowledging your mistakes and apologizing for them, and never trying to claim credit that rightly belongs to others.

Treating others—everyone—with respect is a marker of leadership, never weakness. Being kind and generous and thanking people who help you out will make them respect you.Always remember that the support staff in any organization play an important role in the organization's success. Don't ever make them feel like they don't matter.

Treating people with respect and kindness is especially challenging when you disagree with them, or when they are jerks. (There are some jerks out there!) This challenge comes up in many contexts, often in a meeting. Say you're a member of a committee or a board and you disagree with a point that someone else has made. How you phrase what you say matters. If you raise your voice, if you're nasty and personally disparaging, if you cut the other person off, you undercut your effectiveness. Expressing a point of disagreement quietly, thoughtfully, and with sensitivity is much more effective with those you are trying to persuade, and much more likely to cause the other person to hear you and reconsider, than dismissively making your point.

Dealing with an unreasonable person, a screamer, or someone who does not treat you with respect is hard. That is when you are tested. That is when you have to see if you can take the high road, even though the other person does not. And sometimes you won't be able to. Sometimes your frustration with inappropriate conduct and the heat of the moment just get the better of you. But try not to let that happen. Take a deep breath, count to 10—or at least five—before you say something in anger. It will make a difference. Civility in the face of its opposite can be disarming.

Finally, valuing diversity enhances leadership. When you're making committee appointments, when you're thinking about people to include on your team, think about diversity. I'm referring not only to diversity in terms of race and ethnicity and gender and sexual orientation, but also to differences between old-timers and newcomers, insiders and outsiders, liberals and conservatives. I'm referring to differences in background and life experiences. Strong leaders recognize the value of including people who are different from themselves, people who can complement their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses.

My bottom line is this: good people finish first. Whoever said that nice guys finish last was a cynic, a loser, and wrong. There is no inconsistency between strong personal character—goodness—and professional success. The first promotes the second.

James Sandman is president of the Legal Services Corporation. He previously served as managing partner at Arnold &Porter LLP and as general counsel for the D.C. Public Schools. He chairs the D.C. Circuit Judicial Conference Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services.