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Differentiating leadership at your firm

Leadership and management skills are both important assets for a firm to succeed, but recruitment and development of employees should be based on the specific leadership tasks that need to be performed, writes Keegan Luiters.

The Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne published the Study of Australian Leadership in 2016. It was a comprehensive exploration of leadership at work in an Australian context.

Among the many findings was the overarching theme that leadership matters. Leadership can have a positive (or negative) impact on performance at individual, team and organisational levels.

What is it then that differentiates the leadership that your firm needs to succeed? This article won’t answer that question for you specifically. Rather, it is intended to provide you with ways that you can better answer that question for yourself.

Leadership vs management

How is leadership differentiated from management in your firm? It’s a perennial question in organisational development. An overly simplistic differentiation could be around process versus people. That is to say that management is about generating outcomes through controlling processes, while leadership is about achieving results through engaging and supporting people.

It’s not that simple. The two processes interact in complex ways. Most research is aligned around the point that good management involves effective leadership (and vice versa).

The fact is that your firm needs both leadership and management. Being able to clearly differentiate between the two approaches will assist in applying the right approach for the right circumstance. Given that leadership and management inter-relates, developing either skill set can strengthen both approaches.

Levels of leadership

It seems self-evident that leaders at different levels within the firm have different responsibilities. Depending on the size of your practice, there may be leadership roles ranging from Senior Associate to Executive Lawyer, to Partner or Director.

Knowing what is required from each leadership role will help in two complementary ways. First, it assists in the performance of the current role by providing clarity on the expectations of leaders at each level. Second, it helps to identify the capabilities and attributes that are required for the next leadership role.

An important concept within organisational development was established by Laurence Peter in 1969. His book, The Peter Principle, is built around the premise that people will “rise to the level of their incompetence” (emphasis mine). That sounds counter-intuitive, but it is based on the observation that people who perform well in their current role are promoted. If they perform well in that role, they are promoted again. This pattern repeats until the person is in a role that they no longer excel at – and that’s where they stay!

Identifying what each level of leadership requires allows firms to be better positioned to avoid the Peter Principle trap. Instead, you can recruit, appoint and develop leaders for each level based on what that leadership role requires – and not simply because they have done their current role well.

The practices of good leaders at your firm

In 2008, Google set about researching internally to prove that managers did not make a difference to performance. They couldn’t prove that and instead established that managers did make a difference.

This research became known as Project Oxygen. Project Oxygen initially identified eight behaviours that differentiated the best managers at Google from others. Subsequent research in 2018 updated this list, which currently sits at 10 behaviours.

1. They are good coaches.

2. They empower teams and avoid micromanaging.

3. They create an inclusive team environment.

4. They focus on productive behaviour and results.

5. They communicate well.

6. They support career development and performance.

7. They know their vision and strategy.

8. They possess technical skills that can guide the team.

9. They demonstrate collaborative skills.

10. They make firm decisions.


The outcomes are of interest and value. The process is even more so. Are you able to articulate the practices that differentiate good leaders from poor leaders in your firm? Or those that elevate good leaders to become great leaders? These answers are incredibly valuable for current and future performance.

It is not necessary to embark on a research project at the scale that Google has done to uncover useful answers to these questions. Sufficient data could be gleaned through short surveys across the firm identifying the actions considered most beneficial, the use of more formal leadership assessments (such as a well-validated 360-degree assessment) or more qualitative approaches such as interviews or focus groups (of both leaders and those that they lead).

Combining the findings of your internal process with established research from outside of your organisation (Project Oxygen could be a starting point and there are many other sources to call upon) will help develop a robust way to articulate how leaders can lift their contribution from average to good, or good to great.

These three ways of differentiating leadership in your firm are a great starting point. They will allow you to identify and articulate the difference that leaders and leadership make in your firm’s context. These ways of differentiating leadership performance will also allow you to better support current leaders’ performance, develop the right leadership capabilities and identify the best people to drive your business forward.

Keegan Luiters is an independent consultant who works with leaders, teams and organisations to lift their performance. His book, Team Up, explores how and why to take a deliberate approach to team performance. Visit for more information or connect with him on LinkedIn.