Within the legal profession the ability to lead successfully, by adapting to change quickly and without controversy, are essential qualities. However, most lawyers who find themselves in leadership roles have had little formal leadership training.
While law school prepares us for thinking like a lawyer – analysing potential situations, steering clients towards desired (or potentially negative) outcomes, or how to deal with disputes – it doesn’t teach us how to be a leader of lawyers.
This rigid structure of how to think like a lawyer can lead to us only considering one perspective, which can damage interactions with clients, colleagues, family and friends, and can also undermine our ability to cope with leadership roles.
Added to this mix is the high level of scepticism that most lawyers are prone to suffer with (some research believes it to be around the 90th percentile) and you can see why there are certain mindsets that lawyers might want to avoid if they wish to be a successful, resilient and effective leader.
The list of qualities required for leadership within the legal profession should place ‘resilience’ in pole position. Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties or problems, and implies a mind that has the ability to be flexible, durable and tough.
Legal leadership requires the skill of recognising when our mindset isn’t working to our advantage, knowing how to cross-examine it, change it, and strike out in a new direction when necessary.
If you are considering a leadership role in your legal firm, there are five mindsets you should avoid which can seriously damage your capacity to perform to the best of your ability.
1. Intellectual Phoniness
Intellectual phoniness, or ‘imposter syndrome’ as it is sometimes known, is common in many professional fields.
The feeling that you don’t belong in the position you hold, haven’t earnt the right, or have somehow managed to trick your boss into believing you’re the right person for the role (when clearly you aren’t), are all the symptoms of intellectual phoniness.
Despite masses of evidence that suggests you are more than qualified, have the right degree, were offered the job, and so on, you still feel that you are somehow ‘faking it’.
In the 1970s, when the concept of imposter syndrome was first discovered, it was originally thought that it only applied to high-achieving women.
However, since then it has been more widely experienced by many professional people, with as many as 40% of high-achievers suggesting they suffer from this type of thought pattern.
It is often linked to perfectionism; assuming there is a perfect script for conversations, procrastinating due to high standards, or failing to act in case a mistake is made, are all typical actions of someone suffering under the burden of intellectual phoniness.
If you feel like you may be experiencing intellectual phoniness it is essential that you share your feelings with people you trust. You can help yourself by focusing on others in the same situation, assessing your abilities honestly and openly, questioning your beliefs, and by avoiding comparison with others.
2. Low Self-Confidence
Self-confidence gives you the faith and belief in your ability to solve problems, resolve issues, and to succeed in all areas of your work and life.
Self-confidence is also specific to certain domains. For instance, you may feel confident drawing up contracts or negotiating a merger, but doubt your abilities to deal with committee planning or court room appearances.
Low self-confidence can affect your ability to make informed decisions, act authoritatively, and to lead and influence others.
Conversely, people who have high self-confidence can adapt to change through effective coping mechanisms such as, positive planning, reframing and acceptance. They make for effective leaders as they are able to identify new business opportunities, think creatively, act under stress, and influence others.
Within the domains of a legal career you are likely to need to work on your confidence levels at some point. For fledgling lawyers it might be building confidence in negotiating, or networking, but for experienced lawyers it may be developing relationships with business colleagues or clients, or taking on leadership roles.
Whatever area of your career that demands a high level of self-confidence you can feel secure in the knowledge that self-confidence can be learned and developed.
The following tips will help you to improve your self-confidence if rehearsed often:
• Stay away from the ‘haters’
• Lean towards positive people and situations
• Adopt new, positive body language styles
• Change your image
• Don’t accept failure or pay heed to negative voices
• Be prepared
• Challenge and stretch yourself in small manageable ways
3. Negative Thought Patterns
Negative thought patterns often take the form of ‘thinking traps’. These self-conceived snares trick us into feeling anxious and worrying about what ‘might’ happen.
For many people these negative thought patterns are normalised by referring to them as simply ‘overthinking’, however, for some they are cognitive distortions that do not portray reality.
The most common forms of thinking traps include jumping to conclusions (far-fetched assumptions), mind-reading (assuming you know what others think, often incorrectly), all-or-nothing (black and white) scenarios, personalising (self-blame and self-doubt), externalising (blaming others), and exaggeration (making a mountain out of a molehill).
To help overcome these negative thought patterns, try:
• Identify the type of traps to which you are prone
• Challenge the thinking traps
• Separate reality from the fiction in your mind
• Aim for balance
• Don’t try to ‘not think’ about it, instead use your logical mind to evaluate and assess
4. Catastrophe and Drama
We’ve all experienced apprehension about a future event, which our mind has gleefully taken over and changed into an event of such cataclysmic proportions that we can’t sleep for fear and worry. More often than not, these events turn out just fine and we discover there was no need for so much tension.
However, when you are stressed, run-down, tired, or over-worked, your ability to function at top mental capacity is severely restricted. This can lead to a cycle of deteriorating thought patterns that are increased when playing through potential catastrophic events or increasing the drama in a situation.
For instance, at the end of a long week you might receive an email from one of the partners in your firm requesting that you go and see them first thing Monday morning. While this normally wouldn’t faze you, when you are over-worked and anxious the tendency to jump to the wrong conclusion and start creating a drama is overwhelming. Stress shuts down your ability to take purposeful action, instead allowing your mind to dwell on a host of other catastrophic possibilities that may never come to pass.
Avoid ‘catastrophising’ by employing these useful strategies:
• Self-monitor your thoughts and assess their validity
• Check if your thoughts have been impacted by your health, stress levels, mood and so on
• Find someone to discuss your fears with and listen to their response
• Face your fears
5. Pessimistic Thinking
Success and achievement don’t happen by accident. They are produced from the fabric of a positive mental attitude which can envisage the realisation of aims and objectives.
If you tend towards a pessimistic mindset in your thought processes your internal dialogue is likely to sound something like this;
“I’m never going to get promoted”, or “I’m so rubbish, this is all my fault”.
These statements are pessimistic in that they consider something will be permanent (never get promoted) and also personal (my fault).
Pessimistic thinkers also tend to deny and negate any good experiences or events by explaining them away as lucky or due to some factor outside of their control.
These cognitive explanations fall along a continuum, and research has shown that consistent pessimistic explanations are associated with an increased likelihood of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and helplessness.
Encourage a positive mental attitude by:
• Embracing life
• Giving appreciation for what you have
• Believing you are good enough
• Loving yourself
• Giving yourself a break
Legal leaders aren’t always expected to be on top form, or perfectly breeze through everyday problems as if they haven’t a care in the world, however, they all share the ability to ‘bounce back’ after setbacks or hindrances due to their resilience, positive mental attitude and self-belief.
Adopting these mindsets comes with practice and is achievable with persistence and perseverance. As Henry Ford once said “whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right”.