Resources Articles 20 Ways to Become a Leader

20 Ways to Become a Leader

Wisconsin Lawyer
Volume 77, Number 3
March 2004

Here are 20 ways to develop attorneys’ leadership competencies, which will increase attorneys’ job satisfaction, and improve business outcomes.

Research on leadership indicates that 50 to 75 percent of organizations are currently managed by people lacking in leadership competence. [1] They are hired or promoted based on technical competence, business knowledge, and politics - not on leadership skill. Such managers often manage by crisis; are poor communicators; are insensitive to moral issues; are mistrustful, over-controlling and micro-managing; fail to follow through on commitments they’ve made; and are easily excitable and explosive. The result is low morale, alienated employees, and costly attrition. Since the best business outcomes are achieved by satisfied employees, the legal profession can only gain by an increasing focus on the development of attorneys’ leadership competencies.

Here are 20 things lawyers can do to increase their leadership competencies.

20 Ways to Become a Leader

  1. Take Charge. Become the sculptor of your own career and life - not the sculpture. Leaders are authentic - the authors of their own lives. Take responsibility for your professional development. No one has a greater investment in your success and satisfaction than you. Especially as a woman, you cannot depend upon the traditional management structure of your organization to put you on the path to achievement. It’s up to you to direct and protect your career and to develop your own potential. You cannot afford to be passive to accept roles assigned to you. Know what you want and why and be prepared to take action to make it happen.
  2. Know Your Strengths. Work is most meaningful and satisfying when it gives us an opportunity to use our strengths. Leadership is fundamentally about character. Knowing your character strengths enables you to find ways to select work environments and work assignments that allow you to express and develop them. For example, if one of your greatest strengths is loyalty and teamwork, you’ll be most effective and satisfied working as a member of a team. If fairness is among your greatest strengths, you’ll be frustrated and dissatisfied without an opportunity to work on issues of justice. If you’re someone who loves to learn, you’ll feel bored and frustrated unless you can find ways to master new skills and bodies of knowledge.

    It’s also important to keep track of your own accomplishments. Unfortunately, legal workplaces are notorious for focusing on mistakes and defeats rather than on what people have done well. However, good leaders develop talent by matching people’s strengths with work tasks. They recognize contributions and celebrate accomplishments. Start practicing good leadership by keeping a log of your own successes. Record even small wins - this is essential for building your own confidence and developing a crucial leadership competence.

    You can assess your strengths by taking the VIA Strengths Survey.

    Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist known for his research in the areas of helplessness, depression, optimism and positive psychology, has developed this web site: Since he continues to do research on the instruments on this site, you can take them for free.

    The Gallup StrengthsFinder is another way to assess your strengths. You can learn about it at

  3. Create Your Vision. Leaders are vision directed. A leader creates a compelling vision, is committed to this vision, and inspires others to action by aligning their goals with this vision. Your vision statement is a picture of the future to which you can commit. It expresses your values, the contribution you want to make, and the way you want to live your life.

    Without a clear vision, it’s easy to be led by the expectations of others. As a professional coach, I can attest to the unhappiness of lawyers who’ve allowed the demands and approval of others to become their compass. It is heartbreaking to look back on your life with regret.

    Your vision statement is your own personal “why.” Knowing what you’re working toward allows you to plan your professional development as well as to be resilient in the face of obstacles. If you’d like a format for a personal vision statement, you can email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it with “Vision Statement” in the subject line.

  4. Choose a Workplace with Compatible Values. One of the biggest mistakes many attorneys make is to accept a position in an organization with values contrary to their own. This situation leads to misery at worst, and job change at best. Furthermore, you are much less likely to achieve a position of leadership in an organization with values at odds with your own ethics than you would in an environment that echoed your principles.
  5. Establish Your Own Personal Advisory Board. Although the legal profession puts a premium on self-reliance, everyone needs guidance, role models, and support. Old-style mentoring rarely exists in the 21st-century legal workplace. Even if you have an assigned mentor, such “arranged marriages” rarely meet your most important professional development needs. It’s especially difficult for women and attorneys of color to find mentors who identify with them or to whom they can look for time-tested strategies that apply to their unique challenges.
    • Select people you trust.
    • Keep in mind that the alliances you form with your advisors are substantive, strategically important, and meaningful relationships.
    • Clarify each person’s expectations for the relationship. Negotiate how long you expect the relationship to proceed in this form.
    • Understand what your mentor needs in order for the relationship to be mutually rewarding. For some advisors, helping another attorney succeed is sufficient. Others might feel rewarded by your offers to assist them in their own work.

    Establishing your own personal advisory board enables you to obtain assistance from several people. Each has a unique contribution to make to your career success. This approach also gives you an opportunity to seek needed assistance without overburdening any one person. In order to construct an effective personal board of directors, you need to assess your learning needs. Identify the skills you need to acquire or improve in order to achieve the career goals you’ve set for the next year or two. Having identified your knowledge needs, you’ll be ready to identify potential advisors. You can get recommendations from others. At the same time, observe people you’d like to emulate or those who have some special expertise in the areas in which you’re interested. Look within as well as outside your current work setting.

    The people on your board will change as your learning needs change. Here are a few important tips for developing your advisory board:

    You’ll need to have advisors who serve different functions. The most important of these are:

    A Culture Guide. If you’re a new attorney, or are new to your current work setting, you’ll need an advisor who can help you learn about the organizational culture. This mentor can provide tips on who is powerful, who the key players and decision makers are, whom to seek out, and whom not to cross. This mentor may also suggest committees to join and other avenues to pursue so that you will become more visible.

    A Legal Skills Mentor. It’s useful to find a mentor with deep knowledge in your area of the law - a senior and successful attorney who can provide candid and constructive feedback about your work. You need to have someone you trust to whom you can turn with substantive questions about your work. Ideally, this would not be someone who will be in a position of evaluating you; you can’t hold back if you want to really learn.

    A Role Model. It’s especially helpful for women attorneys to form alliances with other women lawyers who share their work/life balance values. Ask someone you admire to share her strategies for balancing work and family. It’s particularly helpful to identify leadership role models. Think of the most inspiring leaders in your life and list the attributes that elicited your admiration and respect. Find role models who can advise you about how you can become a leader.

    ” A Good “Connector.” Unless you have a well-established network, it’s helpful to know someone who can introduce you to people you’d like to know. As a knowledge worker in today’s economy, you simply cannot know everything. Establishing a knowledge network enables you to identify the fastest route to the information you need and the people who can connect you to that information. Whether you’re seeking information requested by a client, connections to business development opportunities, or looking for another job, a well-developed network is an essential resource.

  6. Find a Champion. It’s essential to have someone who will be your champion in the organization. Most likely, this will be someone with whom you practice. The more value you add to the practice of a senior lawyer in your practice group, the more he or she will be invested in retaining you. People who like you, as well as your work, are more likely to be in your corner. It’s also necessary that this person be in a secure position in the organization; someone in a tenuous spot is unlikely to feel able to go out on a limb for you.
  7. Work Toward Excellence in Your Practice. Excellent work performance is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for leadership. Stay on top of your professional development. Don’t wait for your firm or organization to offer a seminar in the skills you want to learn - seek out your own training opportunities.

    Keep in mind the difference between excellence and perfection. Maintaining high standards for your work reflects positive striving. On the other hand, being harshly self-critical for the smallest error will undermine your success. Perfectionism easily leads to micro-management and harsh criticism of others, neither of which are effective leadership behaviors.

    It’s difficult to strive for excellence unless you’re doing what you love. People who are committed to what they do - who are strongly interested in their work - are resilient in the face of challenges. Enthusiasm and passion motivate hard work. Genuine interest sustains focused attention.

    It’s important to know what skills you should be developing as you progress in your career. The ABCNY Report of the Task Force on Lawyers Quality of Life delineates specific training goals for corporate and litigation associates. You can bind these at Look for Attachment C.

    For a list of skills against which to asses your progress, you can send an email to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it with “Skills” in the subject line.

    The more knowledgeable you are and the better your skills, the more you’ll be a resource to others. Expertise builds your reputation as a credible and trusted resource, which is essential for attaining leadership roles.

  8. Take Initiative. Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, you need to take control of your own destiny and act on your own convictions. To become a leader, you must first learn to lead yourself. Initiative is a fundamental leadership competence. Choose your work - don’t let it choose you. Seek out work you like or from which you can learn. If the work you really want isn’t coming your way, make a plan to find it. Forge alliances with people both within and outside our organization who can help you work with the kinds of matters and clients you prefer.

    Avoid the “tyranny of the in-basket.” [2] You need to actively work on your career, not just on your work. Develop a career plan. Identify specific, measurable goals and routes for accomplishing them. Go beyond adapting to whatever comes your way. Proactively select and influence the situation in which you work rather than merely reacting to situations created by others. Work to change yourself and your circumstances for the better.

    Leaders create a vision, set goals that embody the vision, inspire action to accomplish the vision, and develop strategic plans that lead to their goals. Start on your path to leadership by leading yourself.

  9. Take Risks. Developing leadership skill requires getting out of your comfort zone. Set “stretch” goals that enable you to develop new skills. Join committees and take a leadership role. This is an opportunity to develop leadership competencies and increase your visibility. Avoid flying under the radar; it does not demonstrate that you are a team player. You stand to lose far more by being invisible than you do by taking risks.

    To break through stereotypes, you’ll need to appear confident. That means being willing to learn on the job instead of waiting until you know everything before you take on challenges. Ask your advisory board and network to help you fill in knowledge gaps.

    Present your ideas. Be decisive and to the point. Speak in a convincing manner and make your statements strong and powerful. Claim authorship of your ideas. Don’t qualify your statements or apologize for speaking. Be assertive, not aggressive. Manage your emotions when you set limits and make requests. Avoid harsh criticism and always respect the dignity of others.

    Depersonalize your mistakes. Just because you failed at one thing doesn’t make you a failure. View mistakes as learning opportunities. If you become so worried about how you’re perceived after you make an error that you never try again, others will conclude that you always make mistakes. But if you attribute your error to insufficient information, you’ll learn more and try again. Your track record of successes will outweigh the memory of your small errors. Taking risks builds resilience and self confidence. The more you stretch yourself and succeed, the more confident you’ll feel. This will empower you to strive toward a leadership position.

  10. Be Optimistic. As “purveyors of hope,” [3] leaders must be optimistic. Realistic optimists take control where they can and stop investing energy in things beyond their control. When faced with a setback, optimists don’t succumb to feelings of helplessness. They maintain their focus on the larger purpose, finding ways to bounce back and pursue alternative routes to their goal. Optimists see mistakes as learning opportunities, not as catastrophes from which they’ll never recover. This enables them to take the kinds of risks necessary for becoming a leader.

    Optimism is especially difficult for lawyers, since so much of legal work is about anticipating and preventing disaster. But even though pessimism may help you be more effective in your legal practice, it will be an obstacle if you think this way about career planning or the rest of your life.

    You’re probably used to thinking that optimism is just a personality characteristic and you either have it or you don’t. But the fact is that research has demonstrated that people can learn to think more optimistically and that these changes are enduring. If you want to learn to be more optimistic, I’d encourage you to read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. [4]

  11. Become “Un-Fungible.” Find a niche that your organization values and about which you can be passionate. Develop your expertise in this area. If you are an expert in this niche, you’ll be of considerable value to your firm. This increases your power to lobby for flexibility in your scheduling and opportunities to take on leadership roles.
  12. Make Your Career More Important Than Your Job. [5] Focusing on your long-term career goals enables you to minimize the power of any given employer. If your goals are incompatible with those of your organization, or if you can’t get the support you need to make your vision a reality, look elsewhere.
  13. Develop Your Social Intelligence. Leadership is interpersonal. Effective leadership is fundamentally about how you relate to people. Social intelligence consists of several components:

    Self-management. People who cannot manage the expression of their own emotions are unlikely to effectively manage others. It’s important to develop an awareness of your own feelings and make deliberate choices about how best to use them in any given situation. Managing your emotions keeps them from clouding your perceptions and judgments. Being able to influence how others perceive you and coming across to others in the way you intend require self-awareness and self-regulation.

    It’s essential to have a deep understanding of your own values, motives, strengths, and limitations. Though it’s not always easy to be honest with yourself, you need to develop this kind of honesty if you want to be interpersonally effective. Realistically appraise yourself without being overly self-critical. Ask others for feedback. The knowledge of how others perceive you is a powerful tool. Monitor yourself; pay attention to your feelings, actions and intentions. Observe the impact of your actions on others.

    Self-awareness is also critical for empathy, since we tend to perceive others through the filter of our own needs, fears, expectations and hopes. When we are aware of what we expect to hear or are afraid of hearing, we can get past the filter and hear what’s really being communicated.

    Social radar. Effective leaders can read emotional signals and assess others’ emotional states. Your ability to influence others depends upon your skill at sensing their reactions and adjusting your approach accordingly. Practice “active” listening - listening not only to the other person’s words but also their nonverbal expressions. Leaders are more persuasive when they can attune their message to their listeners.

    Seek win-win solutions to problems. Leaders elicit far more cooperation when they work toward equitable solutions that all participants can embrace. Be flexibly open to others’ points of view and demonstrate your understanding of their perspectives. Always try to preserve the dignity of everyone involved in a problem or project. Leadership is about building and empowering teams. Practice creating an atmosphere of collaboration and openness.

  14. Be Your Own Advocate. Many attorneys who are excellent advocates for their clients are fearful of advocating for themselves. In our culture, women are socialized to believe that self-promotion is not only unbecoming and aggressive but will also damage their careers. But failing to advocate for yourself can have far-reaching consequences. In the short run, too much modesty feeds into the gender stereotype that women aren’t “tough enough.” Keep in mind that other people see only a small percentage of our actions. The missing information has to come from the actor. Share your knowledge by offering to help others. Broadcast your wins through in-house newsletters. Express your convictions. Self-advocacy is necessary for reaching positions of leadership.
  15. Break Through Expectations. Gender role stereotypes are on obstacle to women achieving leadership in the legal profession. But believing you’ll never break the “glass ceiling” is sure to hold you back. Sometimes the only way to get past these stereotypes is to address them directly. Shining a light on unspoken assumptions can enable your listeners to hear and see beyond their expectations. By identifying these assumptions, you’re conveying power and insight, which inspire trust.
  16. Become an Excellent Communicator. A leader must communicate her or his vision in a way that energizes people and galvanizes them toward action. The ability to gain the cooperation and support of others - through negotiation, persuasion, and influence - depends upon communication skill, which in turn is essential for leadership.

    Be aware of gender differences in communication style. (For details, see Issue #27 of “Beyond the Billable Hour” at Essentially, you must take your listener’s expectations into account in tailoring your communications. For women, it’s especially important to give the other person a reason to listen by addressing a goal your listener wants to achieve. When people feel heard, they’re more likely to hear you. When you understand their goals, you can articulate how their aspirations can be aligned with your vision.

    Although implicit gender role stereotypes foster the belief that mothers more so than fathers cannot be good leaders, the fact is that parenting is an excellent training ground for leadership skills. As a parent you learn to plan strategically, negotiate, enlist cooperation, and persuade - all of which you can transfer to the workplace.

  17. Show Concern for Others. Research [6] indicates that among the most important characteristics of effective leaders are compassion, nurturance, generosity, altruism, and empathy. “Agreeableness” is a social trait, and leadership takes place in a social context, so it’s not surprising that these characteristics are so important for effective leadership. Women lawyers need to keep this in mind. All too often women are urged to “act like men” in working toward leadership positions. Be encouraged to learn that the most effective leaders demonstrate traits most often attributed to women.
  18. Develop and Maintain a Support System. Taking the time to maintain supportive and close connections with others is necessary to attain and sustain the energy and well-being you need to achieve career success. At home, you’ll need a partner who will agree to negotiate and share family work with you. Be clear with your significant others that you need their help in order to reach your goals. Being overloaded with family responsibility is as much of an obstacle to women reaching positions of leadership as is the “glass ceiling” at work.

    You’ll also need the support of people you supervise - your support staff, paralegals, junior associates, and so on. It’s easier to recruit such support if you understand their needs and goals and treat them with compassion and respect. Compassion and encouragement motivate people much more than impatience and harshness.

    Learn to delegate well. Remember, leaders don’t do all the work themselves. They effectively match people to tasks based on a knowledge of their subordinates’ strengths and aspirations. They are clear about their expectations when giving assignments. But don’t allow perfectionism to derail good delegating. If you’re not satisfied with the finished product, resist the urge to do it over yourself. Instead, return the work to the person who produced it and make sure that he or she understands your expectations. That way, you won’t feel overburdened and you’ll help the other person increase his or her own competence.

  19. Maintain Integrity. Integrity may be the single most important characteristic of competent leadership; it’s the sine qua non of a trusted advisor and effective leader. People are willing to be led by someone who follows through - someone they trust. Do what you say you will do. Don’t promise to do what you can’t. People without integrity may gain power, but they don’t truly lead.
  20. Persevere. Persistence in the face of adversity is one of the cornerstones of resilience. Take responsibility for your own fate. Stay resolute in your values and goals and remain determined and self-disciplined in your efforts to achieve them. Persistence doesn’t mean you never feel discouraged. Rather, it means maintaining our focus on the goal in spite of your feelings of discouragement. Like a marathon runner, you keep going because you believe in what you’re doing. You simply will not give up.

    If your goal is to become a leader to help the legal profession become a truly diverse, welcoming, and equitable profession, then don’t give up. Your leadership is most needed.


  1. Robert Hogan, “Leadership in Organizations.” Paper presented at the Second International Positive Psychology Summit, Washington, D.C. (Oct. 2-5, 2003).
  2. Stephen R. Covey. The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. New York: Fireside (1989).
  3. Warren Bennis & Joan Goldsmith, Learning to Lead, Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books (1997).
  4. Martin E. P. Seligman, Learned Optimism, New York: Pocket Books (1998).
  5. Stephanie Wichouski, Esq. Personal communication.
  6. Timothy A. Judge & Joyce E. Bono, Five-factor Model of Personality and Transformational Leadership, 85 (5) J. Applied Psych. 751-65 (2000).

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