Why Lawyers Become Bad Leaders – CHE

As Deborah Rhode observes, lawyers rank low in terms of perception as being honest and ethical, yet make up a majority of US presidents and half of Congress. Does the study of the law result in bad leaders?

There is also a mismatch between the traits associated with leaders and those associated with lawyers. Although what constitutes effective leadership depends on context, certain qualities are rated as important across an array of situations. The best-documented characteristics cluster in five categories: vision, values (integrity, honesty, an ethic of service), personal skills (self-awareness, self-control), interpersonal skills (social awareness, empathy, persuasion), and technical competence (knowledge, preparation, judgment).

Not all of those qualities are characteristic of lawyers. For example, they tend to be above average in their skepticism, competitiveness, autonomy, sense of urgency, and orientation to achievement. Skepticism, the tendency to be argumentative, cynical, and judgmental, can get in the way of what President George H.W. Bush famously dismissed as the \”vision thing.\” The need to \”get things done\” urgently can lead to impatience, intolerance, and a failure to listen. Competitiveness and desires for autonomy and achievement can make lawyers self-absorbed, controlling, and combative.

Lawyers also rank lower than the general population in interpersonal sensitivity and resilience­—their difficulty in accepting criticism. Lacking \”soft\” interpersonal skills, they tend to devalue them and see no reason to acquire them.

Another problem arises from what researchers call the \”paradox of power.\” Individuals reach top positions because of a need for personal achievement, so they often don\’t focus on helping others achieve. If left unchecked, the ambition, self-confidence, and self-centeredness that often propel lawyers to leadership roles may sabotage their performance once they get there.

via Why Lawyers Become Bad Leaders – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.


6 thoughts on “Why Lawyers Become Bad Leaders – CHE”

  1. This is so interesting to me. You would think that a sound understanding for the law and a desire to fight for what is right would help them be amazing leaders. I guess I just never thought about how the attributes that many lawyers acquire would transfer over and cause then to be “bad” leaders.

    Another thought that comes to mind is what makes a “good” leader. I don’t think being liked by everyone that you are leading names you a good leader. I think that sometimes lawyer-like traits are needed to make hard decisions. The article talked about how a lawyer is more concerned with his own success than that of others. That seems to me like something that can translate over to a needed presidential skill. Sometimes decisions have to be made that are for our own benefit and we have to ignore the losses sustained by others.

  2. First, I admit I laughed when I learned that lawyers are still thought of as more trustworthy than members of congress. Makes me wonder if the lawyers-turned-congressmen are less or more trusted than their peers when ranked individually. But that is a study for another time.

    While I agree that the ability to make hard decisions is a useful lawyer trait, it’s also one common for many professions. On the other hand, the competitiveness and especially desire to win make, as the article says, terrible governance. Governance shouldn’t be about winning, it should be about creating a better world and that requires seeing “past their own ambitions and desire for limelight”.

    In all, good article

  3. Currently, I am on the path to becoming a lawyer. I’ve heard a lot of lawyer jokes and I’ve spoken with a lot of different lawyers. Because there are so many different types of lawyers, it’s hard to classify the group as a whole as dishonest. The article also mention the phenomenon that lawyers are not trained in leadership, yet are often leaders. Though lawyers may not have this training in leadership, lawyers do know the law, which is primarily the main point of government. Lawyers also know how to draft documents so wording is clear and concise, which is important in lawmaking. I also wouldn’t say that all lawyers are in it for “number one.” Lawyers can work as well collectively in a governing body as they can individually.

  4. Wow, guess I shouldn’t go to law school. I think lawyers are apt to become leaders, because of their abilities to write well, and speak eloquently. These traits are essential. As far as not having the ability to be personal and caring, it would be difficult for any leader to have such traits because this would cause that leader to be taken advantage of. So this interpersonal trait is not lost exclusively among leaders. I also think it is wrong to say that lawyers do not listen, lawyers have great listening skills–as they search for the opportunity to object–they just tend to focus on what their intentions are. In the end, I think it is difficult to define what a great leader is and that lawyers are just as apt to be great leaders as any other profession.

  5. This article did a good job of showing how bad lawyers and maybe most lawyers, who knows how many of them are bad, make bad leaders. I can see why in this day and age especially with the quantity of lawyers that their are in the US and the bad rep that goes along with them it is easy to see why a bad lawyer would make a bad leader. But I think that the qualities that would make a good lawyer are also the qualities that would make a good leader.

  6. I find it interesting (and unfortunately understandable) that so many members of a profession focused on pursuing one-sided interests would somehow make their way into the realm of politics. In law, it seems that the end goal is almost always to achieve the most self-serving ends at the expense of your opponent. There are impasses and negotiations alike, but at the end of the day lawyers will always seek what is best for themselves and their clients regardless of what it might mean for the opposition. This fact might go far in explaining why our current government finds itself incapable of reaching any bipartisan compromise in ending the government shutdown. The politicians are so concerned with furthering their own ends that they pursue their interests at the expense of the whole. But nations are not simply one-dimensional clients, and that is why the winner-take-all, take-no-prisoners approach of lawyers is perhaps not well-suited for governments. Whether a politician agrees with half the population or not, that half of the population still exists as functioning members of society. When leaders forget that fact, I think they can lose themselves in their own egos and drive and bring the whole down for the sake of the part that they represent.

    Law is like a chess match, and politics is like a baseball game. You can only rely on yourself for so long when it comes to the political arena, and you have to remember that there are other players on your team; you’re going to have to work together to survive, or even the greatest single player on the diamond will face constant defeat. A large part of me feels as though such ideas run counter-intuitive to everything lawyers practice and know.

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