Why great leaders need great followers

During my tenure as president of the Association of Corporate Counsel I was privileged to work with many outstanding in-house practitioners willing to share their knowledge so others could learn from their experience. One such person was Bill Lytton, our 2002 board chairman. Stated simply, working with him made you better, and it was fun.

I learned a great deal from Bill about leadership, corporate culture, how it differs from organization to organization, the positive impact of humour, and other things you need to be a successful general counsel. Bill retired a few years ago as senior vice president and general counsel of Tyco where he was part of the “clean up” team after the scandal. He had a remarkable career that included private practice, serving as a government prosecutor and special counsel to the president of the United States, and general counsel of two Fortune 500 companies.  

The other day I came across a copy of a speech Bill gave to a group of law students about the challenges of working for an organization as opposed to being in private practice. I recommend it to practicing in-house counsel or those thinking about going in-house.

I believe Bill’s remarks capture the essence of the qualities and skills one needs to be successful. I especially found his comments on the twin roles of being both a leader and a follower intriguing. We have all seen and heard a great deal about leadership — being a good leader, their power, influence, and impact as well as striking examples of leadership failures.  Rarely do we hear about being a “follower” and when we do it usually has a pejorative tone or context.

As Bill notes, the traditional descriptions of leadership include:

• Service: good leaders serve others;
• Inspiration: good leaders inspire others with their words and, most importantly, their actions;
• Vision: presented in a compelling way;
• Honesty: people can believe what you say;
• Integrity: living consistently to high standards of behavior; and
• Enabling and encouraging others to grow and develop into leaders.

We are all leaders in some way and we should aspire to achieve these standards no matter what our formal position in our organization might be. Bill asserts that many of the corporate scandals and executives who found themselves and their companies under fire resulted from a failure of leadership. He is not alone in this regard.

However, and this is where it gets interesting, he goes on to talk about “followership as a quality and attribute to which each of us should aspire.”  While we may each be a leader either formally or informally within our organization or department, we also are followers.  

“There is no leader that does not, at the same time, follow, answer to and owe a duty to someone, whether it is a boss…board…or even the community…”  

Bill then states: “Fundamentally, followers owe a duty to their leaders and to the organizations in which they serve. Simply stated, that duty is to help the leaders make the right decisions, and to remember what is really important.”

Bill contends the corporate scandals we have read and heard about resulted from a failure of both leadership and followership. The leaders lost sight of their responsibilities and failed; but so did the followers, who did not speak up and act. As in-house counsel you have responsibilities greater than other employees. Consequently, a time may come when you may be forced to decide between your career in the organization or doing the right thing.

“Being a [leader] in an organization is a huge challenge, especially when you are not the leader…[N]o matter what your level within the organization, people will look up to you because of your status as a lawyer…Service, doing the right thing — legally as well as ethically, and setting the right example — these are the duties of leadership.

Being a [follower] in an organization requires courage, integrity, judgment, tact and resolve…[I]t is your job to steer your client, and your bosses and coworkers away from legal risk and towards positions that do not expose the organization or themselves — or yourself —to legal or public vilification. It can sometimes be very difficult to summon the courage to do that.”

Bill recognized the importance of developing your own network of people whose judgment and discretion you can rely on.

“Don’t think you can do this alone, that you can become an [in-house counsel] for the first time and not need help, guidance, support and good advice. No one is that self-sufficient or wise.”

The largest single gathering of in-house counsel begins Sept. 30 at the Association of Corporate Counsel annual meeting in Orlando. There is no better place to begin to develop your network.  Find out more about it here.

The guidance Bill Lytton offered to a group of law students several years ago remains valid today. I encourage you to look it over and take it to heart.

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