Where competence and character come together

The nice thing about Twitter is you can learn from events you can’t actually attend. Today Stephen M.R. Covey (son of the 7 Habits guy) spoke at the “DEXIO” conference in Canada: Developing Excellence in Others. This slide from Covey’s talk caught my eye:

(HT to @ITCatherine for the slide.)

Covey’s list of 13 leadership behaviors wasn’t specifically aimed at lawyers as leaders, but it might as well have been. The behaviors were organized into three major categories — competence, character, and the convergence of the two.

Competence was an interesting category and one that will feel good to many lawyers because we are generally very smart and good at the tasks of lawyering. But being competent isn’t enough to succeed in a collaborative work environment. UC-Hastings Dean Frank Wu wrote about this in his Huffington Post column on Why Law Firms Fail. Likewise, while character is essential, it’s also not enough by itself to make a good lawyer.

The convergence category was the payoff of this slide. While competence and character are obviously indispensable to the work of a legal professional, each on its own is not enough. On the slide, Covey lists three behaviors where competence and character come together:

  • listening first
  • keeping commitments
  • extending trust

Obviously I was excited to see listening on that list. Good listeners are highly competent, and good listeners also show great character. Or we could state the opposite: Poor listening can lead to incompetence, such as by not being able to get results because crucial facts or motives were not perceived. (Ouch.) And poor listening may be perceived as disrespectful and therefore a sign of poor character. (Double ouch.)

But the deeper point here is about what it means to be a “high-trust leader” (the title of Covey’s slide) and to develop excellence in others (the theme of the conference). For lawyers responsible for developing excellence in others, what behaviors do they use to do so? Some may take a bit of a muscular attitude toward developing excellence: “I’m going to model it and you can watch and learn.”

Or a senior lawyer may effectively “teach” excellent swimming by throwing juniors into the pool. This approach was apparent in a training video from Hogan Lovells shown at the 2016 American Association of Law Schools’ Annual meeting (video at minutes 8:30-16:10) :

In that video, a senior lawyer was faced with a potential conflict over work allocation among two juniors on his team. To get excellence from this team, he was going to have to go beyond being a good lawyer and nice guy. His response to the conflict? Something along the lines of: “They’re adults; they’re going to have to work this out. I don’t have time for it.” So this guy was clearly not what Hogan Lovells was offering up as a great example of leadership. Maybe he could have used a little more listening, a little more trust-building. He seemed like a good lawyer — very competent and unassailable character. But something was lacking in the way he approached the situation. Maybe it was those behaviors at the intersection of competence and character.

Writing this post made me want to read Deborah Rhode’s book Lawyers as Leaders. For those who have, what would Rhode say about the behavioral categories in Covey’s slide above? How would she approach the hands-off lawyer attempting to lead a team in the Hogan Lovells video?

Thanks to Jennifer Kahnweiler for correcting an earlier version that misidentified Stephen M.R. Covey as his father, Stephen Covey.

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