Leadership Effectiveness Means Staying Centered

March 20 , 2013
by Andrew Cohn

Leading ourselves and others in our practices isn’t always easy. Maintaining our focus and balance is critical—and entirely up to us as leaders.

Here’s what we know:

  • Our workplaces are becoming more stressful and placing greater demands on our time and energy;
  • Our markets are becoming more competitive, with limited and perhaps negative growth;
  • Our clients are more demanding, and more informed (or misinformed) than ever.


Here’s what we often forget:

  • One of our most important assets is our ability to think clearly and stay focused on the person or issue facing us—the ability to be present. That means, for example, not being distracted when we’re talking with clients and not being reactive when talking with our peers and colleagues.
  • Planning ahead by addressing workplace issues proactively helps strengthen our interactions with clients as well as build trust and effectiveness in our workplaces.


My former partner used to say to clients, “all we can offer you is our time.” But in reality, all we can offer to clients (and to our colleagues) is our undivided, focused attention. Time is not enough; quality attention is what’s required to be truly effective.

One term for this type of focus is mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading writers and researchers on mindfulness, defines it in this way: “Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” To me, that means staying focused and centered, free of distraction, and responding appropriately to what’s happening without reacting. This sounds easy but often it’s not.

So what does this look like in the practice of leadership in law firms? The following are some practical suggestions each of us can to maintain focus in the midst of increasing demands:

1. Leave enough “white space” in your calendar. Take time to transition between meetings and phone calls. If you are scheduling meetings/calls, allow attendees time to get to their next meeting (if at all possible). Allow time for the predictable informal conversation after the meeting or call. As a leader, demonstrate what you know about how meetings work and help attendees be successful by not rushing them.

2. Take care of yourself physically and emotionally. This is not an optional, “feel good” suggestion. It’s an all-too-real recognition that being out of balance physically (e.g., exhausted, in pain, over-caffeinated, etc.) or emotionally (e.g., overwhelmed, depressed, saddled with unresolved stress, etc.) can interfere with our mental acuity and focus, and accordingly our ability to serve our clients best.

3. Pay attention to “team hygiene.” For example, if your committee is unclear about what it is expected to produce, get clarity as soon as possible. Confront problems as early as practicable. Is there a nagging, unresolved, “elephant in the room” issue that needs to be discussed? If so, have the courage to put it on the table. Confronting problems directly (even if they can’t be entirely resolved at that time) shows courage and leadership, and frees energy for more productive conversation. It also builds trust, because people trust you more if they know you’re willing to say what needs to be said.

All of these challenges can inhibit our individual and organizational effectiveness. So I encourage you to stay focused and balanced to help manage the demands of your practice.

I welcome your comments.

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