Why mastering the ‘humble swagger’ should be a priority for leaders

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership,Uncategorized] June 25, 2019

Finding a balance between confidence and humility is a complex pursuit for law firm leaders, but it is one they must consider if they hope to be effective in modern markets, writes Keegan Luiters.

Many leaders in professional services such as law rise to their leadership roles through their technical ability or their ability to develop business.

These are essential elements for a successful law firm. It is hard to imagine many firms succeeding without being able to do good work, or without finding clients who will pay for it. These abilities are also a strength for many leaders – they are able to speak from experience and with credibility.

We want and hope that our leaders will possess and instill confidence. We want our leaders to swagger. Too much swagger, however, and leaders are at danger of coming across with hubris, arrogance and, in extreme cases, narcissism. There is a raft of evidence that demonstrates that such behaviours can be damaging to teams and organisations.

Mixed messages

Such excessive swagger has been prevalent across many industries, and the legal profession is no exception. This prevalence of behavioural patterns has spawned research in recent times around the importance of humility in leadership.

Leading with humility is correlated with many positive outcomes within teams, including creativity and information sharing. In an operating environment where there are increasing complexities and an ever-increasing rate of change, it is less likely that leaders have all the answers. We need our leaders to acknowledge that they cannot possibly have all the answers; they need to ask good questions, foster curiosity and be honest when the answer is ‘I don’t know’. We want our leaders to be humble. Too much humility, however, and leaders run the risk of not being visible enough, or their perspectives not being visible enough to cultivate followership.

So where does that leave us?

  • We want our leaders to swagger.
  • We want our leaders to be humble.

Great! Except for the inherent contradiction, of course. As a leader, it often feels like ‘humble’ and ‘swagger’ live at opposite ends of the same spectrum. A bit like a see-saw – if one end goes down, another must come up.

The secret to leaders who master the ‘humble swagger’ is that they realise it is not a choice of humble or swagger. It is a process of trying to present with humility and swagger. This shift in mindset allows leaders to accept the positive aspects of their experience and perspective while still acknowledging their limitations and ability to learn. This looks like a leader who takes a position based on their experience, but is also open to the views of their team. It is a leader who gives advice based on their extensive experience over many years at the same time as they support ideas from less experienced team members.

A balancing act

The ‘humble swagger’ points to a broader set of skills possessed by the best leaders. They are able to see and operate within paradoxes. They acknowledge that, very often, a weakness is when we overplay a strength. To quote entrepreneur Jim Rohn: “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humour, but without folly.” This sums up many of the challenges that leaders are faced with regularly:

  • Do I focus on results or relationships?
  • Is quantity or quality of work more important?
  • Is it best to be directive or supportive?

In almost all of these paradoxical questions, the answer is ‘yes’ to both notions. If we adopt a mindset that we can be only be one or the other, we limit the range of scenarios in which we are effective. It is possible that if leaders are just one of these things, then they can be effective in limited situations. To be more effective in more situations, leaders need to be able to be both directive and supportive, to focus on relationships and results.

At different times, they may need to pull one lever more than another. The most effective leaders are those who have the broadest range of skills. More specifically, the best leaders can choose and apply a broad range of skills in the right situation.

The starting point for this is when we are able to acknowledge the inherent complexity of leading people and operating with people in an ever-changing environment. In his book, Team of Teams, Retired General Stanley McChrystal shares how even the most traditionally hierarchical of organisations (military forces) need leaders who are able to operate through this lens of complexity in a modern world.

Many organisations, including many law firms, are adapting their ways of working to reflect that – and supporting your leaders to embrace a ‘humble swagger’ and other paradoxes is a great place to start.

Keegan Luiters is an independent consultant who works with leaders, teams and organisations to lift their performance. Visit www.keeganluiters.com for more information or connect with him on LinkedIn.