Applying Adaptive Leadership Principles at Law Firms to Navigate Times of Uncertainty

Applying Adaptive Leadership Principles at Law Firms to Navigate Times of Uncertainty

By Scott A. Westfahl , Farayi Chipungu
June 11, 2021 | 12 minutes
Marketing Management and Leadership Change Management Content Type Article Additional Options Content Level: Advanced
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This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of PD Quarterly and is being republished with permission from The National Association for Law Placement (NALP). 

If 2020 taught us nothing else, it is that big things that we take for granted can quickly change or disappear. When tested by outside events — the world changing quickly and significantly around us — how can we manage through change and successfully transition in order to thrive in the emerging “new normal?”

In the aftermath of the Great Recession and 2007-08 global financial crisis (GFC), Harvard Law School Executive Education began to explore how we could translate principles of the adaptive leadership model to help law firm leaders more effectively lead in times of change and uncertainty. This article introduces those key principles and provides specific examples about how they can translate to provide leadership in a law firm, particularly at this very challenging time.

Origins of Adaptive Leadership: The Vision and the Mindset

Adaptive leadership principles arise from the work of Professor. Ron Heifetz and his colleagues at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Traditional” post-World War II models of leadership tended toward exploring the character traits and behaviors of the charismatic “great leader” or “natural-born leader” who intuits a way forward and energizes people to join him in battle. Unsurprisingly — and unfortunately — this model is fraught with unconscious biases that sometimes impede the leadership aspirations of women, people of color, introverts, people with disabilities and others for whom the “great leader” model does not account.

By contrast, Heifetz’ model downplays the heroic, great man leader. Rather than link leadership to a specific person or role, he redefines it as an activity that can be exercised by anyone from any position within an organization.

What we have seen to be true as the world changes in new and unpredictable ways and organizations struggle to keep pace is that no one person has all the answers.

This is especially true of the types of challenges we now face that require quick shifts and trade-offs in organizational mindsets, culture and practices that ripple throughout organizational structures, requiring adaptations from everyone in the enterprise. More than looking solely to those at the top for answers and working to maintain the status quo, the work of leadership increasingly becomes about unlocking leadership potential throughout an organization, to shatter silos, foster multi-disciplinary teams and help ourselves and others learn how to develop a capacity to tolerate uncertainty and anguish.

In doing this work, the aim is to teach people exercising leadership how to create environments that contain the disequilibrium at hand and to leverage the perspectives and strengths of stakeholders affected by it. In place of charisma, being tall or having a deep voice, empathy and openness come to the fore.

To translate this work to the law firm context, we are bringing together our years of experience as former big law lawyers who for several years have been teaching courses for law students/
graduate students and law firm, corporate and public sector leaders (Scott at Harvard Law School and Farayi at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she teaches adaptive leadership courses directly alongside Professor Heifetz).

Applying our experience, we have identified the following key concepts as the starting point for training law firm leaders how to become adaptive leaders:

Concept 1: Technical vs. Adaptive Challenges

Leaders must first discern the difference between what Heifetz calls a “technical” challenge and an “adaptive” challenge. Think about it like this: if you can hire a consultant or an expert to approximate a “right” answer to a problem, it is likely a technical rather than an adaptive problem. In the current moment, a great example would be how to address the challenge of
ensuring all of the firm’s attorneys have the IT equipment and internet access necessary to serve clients while working remotely. There are consultants and experts who can help you to find an optimal, known solution.

By contrast, an adaptive challenge is one for which no expertise about how to solve it currently exists. Instead, the problem challenges core values and assumptions and requires difficult choices that will disappoint at least some of the stakeholders involved. Again, in the current moment, as we look to the new world of work post-pandemic, law firms will need to revise
their policies around remote work, having discovered that lawyers and professional staff can work very effectively outside the office.

There is no known technical solution that is the “right” answer to this question. Instead, law firms must balance many competing interests and challenge long-held assumptions about, for example, how lawyers are developed, what offices should look like and be, how firm culture is built and sustained, and how matters and teams should be staffed.

Many challenges faced by law firms, like this challenge of remote work, include both technical and adaptive elements. Heifetz brilliantly draws from biology to help us understand how to parse these. When the environment around a biological organism changes, the organism retains its core DNA while eventually shedding DNA that is no longer adaptive and evolving new DNA that helps the organism continue to thrive. Leadership becomes the ability to progress with an understanding of which of an organization’s past practices, assumptions, norms and values are no longer helpful and may indeed be harmful to future success.

Law firms must balance many competing interests and challenge long-held assumptions about how lawyers are developed, what offices should look like and be, how firm culture is built and sustained, and how teams should be staffed.

In our example above, that could mean helping senior leaders understand that the cat is out of the bag on remote work and long-held biases against remote work have now been debunked
(e.g., the tech won’t work, it can’t be done, people aren’t accountable, etc.). The path forward requires leaders to develop new DNA and new assumptions about remote work. If they fail
to adapt, the law firm — the organism — could find itself being starved of important nutrients, as top legal talent opts to work for competitor firms instead.

Concept 2: Getting on the Balcony

To make progress on adaptive challenges, leaders must “get on the balcony” and observe the wider context of the “dance floor,” — that is, all of the stakeholders being affected by the changing environment and the adaptive challenge presented. What systemic pressures are they under? Given this context, what values, losses and loyalties are they attuned to? How does this
affect their perspectives on the work? Leaders need to listen, probe and seek to understand stakeholder perspectives to envision a path forward that is viable even if also disappointing to
some or many.

As an example, a few years ago Scott Westfahl and his esteemed Harvard Law School colleague David Wilkins were hired to help a large law firm solve some difficult governance challenges it faced due to rather rapid growth. They suspected that they were being hired as the technical experts with no political skin in the game, meaning that the Harvard experts would be
expected to come and propose the “expert” answer to how the firm’s partners should govern themselves.

Fortunately, Scott and David could hear Admiral Ackbar’s voice from Star Wars in their heads — “It’s a trap!” They didn’t step into it and pretend that this was merely a technical problem with a “right” answer. Instead, they engineered a thoughtful process with top leaders and other stakeholders across the firm to discover what long-held assumptions, practices and values had shaped the firm’s existing governance model and were no longer viable and needed to be shed. Ultimately, the firm’s transition to a new governance model was successful because top leaders ascended to the balcony and worked hard to understand what was actually at stake for all involved and how difficult change was going to be for many people. Firm leaders then toiled to bring people along and show them the benefits of moving forward to a new governance model better suited to the firm’s larger size and complexity.

Concept 3: Holding Space for Productive Disequilibrium

Making progress on adaptive challenge requires leaders artfully to create and sustain an environment where people can listen, learn, manage disagreement, experiment and continue to focus on the work at the center of the problem. Think of a pot of water on a stove: effective adaptive leadership involves applying heat to raise the temperature of the water without allowing it to boil over into complete disequilibrium.

As an example, think of three different law firms facing governance challenges due to rapid growth. At the first firm, leaders passive aggressively avoid discussing the issue, even as the firm is losing groups of unhappy partners who are leaving to join other firms. In the second firm, leaders are fighting in the hallway about the issue and arguing past each other rather than listening, again as groups of unhappy partners are leaving to join other firms. At the third firm, leaders are working to listen and understand the perspectives of their partners, office and practice leaders and professional staff about how growth has affected all of them. They are working to create psychologically safe forums and avenues for perspectives to be shared and
are withholding judgment about what the “right” solution is until they have understood the deeper motivations, assumptions and values at play. They acknowledge loss and the need for trade-offs to be made and are transparent when these arise.

Their ability to create, sustain and “hold” that space for learning, discussion and experimentation is central to their ability to work the challenge and make progress toward a new, sustainable governance model.

Concept 4: Introducing Adaptive Leadership to Law Firm Leaders

As we studied principles of adaptive leadership, we became convinced that it fits extremely well with the concept of leadership in professional services firms, and law firms in particular. Relatively “flat” partnership structures require firm leaders to engage partners and achieve buy-in for major decisions and directional changes. Firm leaders who try to impose significant change by fat often fail, and if they don’t, usually alienate partners enough that some opt to leave rather than accept change forced upon them without meaningful input or consideration of their concerns. Working with ethics and public policy and game theory/simulation design expert Christopher Robichaud, who is a Senior Lecturer at the Kennedy School, we developed an adaptive leadership simulation case to first help law firm leaders understand how to recognize the difference between technical and adaptive challenges, and second, experience what it feels like to start working on an adaptive challenge.

In the simulation, we place people in teams of five to six and ask them to “form” a law firm by choosing from among a set of parameters and values. Then, as the executive committee of their firm, participants are challenged to vote on a decision in three successive, very difficult adaptive scenarios. They take a straw vote, discuss what is at stake and share their perspectives and then take a final vote. When we debrief the simulation, participants often start by saying “those were hard problems” and share how at first, they tried to find an easy, technical solution, but could not because the scenarios were deviously drafted to not let them do so. We point out how critical it is for them to become aware of adaptive challenges as they arise, so that they can immediately start to raise the water temperature and engage stakeholders in deeper, harder discussions about what’s really at stake — and that no matter what, there will be some who will be disappointed.

Concept 5: Helping Individual Lawyers Thrive in Uncertain Times

Another aspect of how we are translating adaptive leadership principles for the legal environment involves helping individual leaders to thrive during times of uncertainty. To help lead others through change requires leaders — at any level — to personally have a high tolerance for risk and an openness to new ideas. They must also be able to help pace themselves and their teams to avoid being overwhelmed by conflicting organizational demands. They must remain able to deploy themselves strategically and develop an ability to understand the role that each stakeholder plays in a system, including themselves. Most critically, they must be able to distinguish themselves — their own beliefs, values and strengths — from their roles, as adaptive leadership can be exercised by anyone in any role.

On this final point, you have surely seen time and time again people who begin to conflate what they do (role) with who they are (self). The implications of this are twofold: importantly, a person can become constrained by what people expect of them in a particular role and consequently compromise their independence of thought and action. Additionally, in the event of failure — an essential ingredient of any true leadership work — a person loses the opportunity to separate their failures from who they are and to reinvent themselves for the next peak. The best litigators do this effortlessly, moving from a win to a loss, to another win and consistently bring the best of themselves without being defined by the actions of the day before.

In a coaching session with Farayi Chipungu, one partner looking through this lens was able to see that while it felt personal, the resistance she had been experiencing to several changes that she wanted to make in her new role as managing partner were in fact aimed at her in her role as managing partner and not at Sally, or as a woman, or as a new addition and lateral recruit to the firm. The resistance would have been the same had the changes been led by a man or more senior or decorated partner. She recognized that in playing this role the pressure on her as the authority was, overwhelmingly, to safeguard rather than disrupt the status quo. Making these changes, therefore, required her to carefully engage with the role expectations of those around her and to renegotiate these relationships and her perceived mandate so that she could actually implement change.

Looking Forward

In the coming months, we will be creating an online masterclass on adaptive leadership, specifically tailored to help law firm and in-house leaders to guide their organizations through the fundamental changes that will no doubt occur in the wake of the global pandemic. We will also work with individual law firms and legal departments to help their associates, other lawyers  and professional staff to build their capacity to thrive in a rapidly changing environment.

Reflecting on the disruption and disequilibrium of the past year and the early events of 2021, we are hopeful that applying adaptive leadership principles will help our profession — and the dedicated, wonderful people within it — to thrive in the days and years ahead.

Dive Deeper With the LMA Podcast

Tune in to the latest LMA Podcast focused on the 2021 Next Big Thing Initiative (NBT), change management. In this episode, NBT Co-Chairs Jill Weber and Ashraf Lakhani sit down with Harvard Law School Executive Education’s Farayi Chipungu to learn how law firms can respond to a market that is demanding change, and how legal marketers at all levels can affect meaningful change. Listen online here.

Scott A. Westfahl
Harvard Law School Executive Education Program

Professor Scott A. Westfahl is the director of Harvard Law School Executive Education program and also teaches courses on leadership, teams, design thinking and innovation within the law school’s J.D. curriculum. As the director of the Executive Education program, he leads the HLS effort to support and develop lawyers across the arc of their careers, particularly as they advance to new levels of leadership and responsibility. He oversees and teaches in Executive Education’s core, global leadership programs for law firm managing partners, emerging law firm leaders, law firm associates and general counsel.

He also collaborates with HLS colleagues and other Harvard faculty to design and teach custom programs for law firms, law departments and other legal-related organizations. He focuses his Executive Education teaching and writing on leadership, motivation and development of professionals, innovation and organizational alignment from a talent management and diversity and inclusion perspective.

Farayi Chipungu
Harvard Law School Executive Education Program

Farayi Chipungu, adjunct lecturer in public policy, teaches Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change. She also serves as faculty on several executive education programs at Harvard.

In addition to teaching at the Kennedy School, Farayi works as a strategy consultant with McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, where she works with leaders and teams across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors to deliver large-scale performance transformation programs. Some of her recent projects include restructuring a national primary health care system, redesigning the performance management systems of a 20,000-person multi-national bank to improve employee alignment with management’s strategic goals, and performing diagnostics to identify and build functional and leadership capability gaps in a multi-year organizational transformation project.

In addition to this work, Farayi’s experience also includes five years of practice as a corporate lawyer in England and Australia and time spent with Cambridge Leadership Associates, a New York-based firm which specializes in delivering transformational programs centered around the adaptive leadership framework. Farayi has degrees in Arts and Law from Monash University in Australia and is also a graduate of the Kennedy School where she completed her MPA.