Why The World’s Greatest Leaders Would Make Terrible Law Firm Managers (But That’s OK)

Few don’t recognize the name Martin Luther King Jr. Born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, King was the inspiration and motivation of the American Civil Rights Movement. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, his “dream” earned him the Nobel Prize, as well as worldwide respect for fighting racial discrimination with non-violent measures.

Also known for his peaceful nature, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is another well-known name. Prominent figure in the Indian Independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi pioneered ‘Satyagraha’, which was an unarmed revolt against injustice.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi have a lot in common.

Both believed in peace measures of revolt and political expression.

Both were nominated for the Nobel Peace prize for their work.

Both were assassinated.

But, most importantly, both were world-class leaders.

What’s important about this for law firm managers? After all, neither King nor Gandhi had to run a 100-person law firm or business of any kind (although Gandhi did try to make it as a lawyer in India…).

King and Gandhi may have been great leaders, but great leadership does not imply great management. In fact, people often confuse the two terms.

Luckily, John Kotter—Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus at Harvard Business School and the Chief Innovation Officer at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations—is here to explain the difference.

In an article for the HBR Blog, Kotter explains, “Management Is (Still) Not Leadership.”

Here are three common mistakes we make when confusing leadership with management:

“Mistake #1: People use the terms “management” and “leadership” interchangeably. This shows that they don’t see the crucial difference between the two and the vital functions that each role plays.

Mistake #2: People use the term “leadership” to refer to the people at the very top of hierarchies. They then call the people in the layers below them in the organization “management.” And then all the rest are workers, specialists, and individual contributors. This is also a mistake and very misleading.

Mistake #3: People often think of “leadership” in terms of personality characteristics, usually as something they call charisma. Since few people have great charisma, this leads logically to the conclusion that few people can provide leadership, which gets us into increasing trouble.”

So, what is management in a nutshell?

“Management is a set of well-known processes, like planning, budgeting, structuring jobs, staffing jobs, measuring performance and problem-solving, which help an organization to predictably do what it knows how to do well,” summarizes Kotter.

“Management helps you to produce products and services as you have promised, of consistent quality, on budget, day after day, week after week”

Management is about operational or organizational success. Management results are tangible, measurable.

So, what is leadership?

“Leadership is entirely different. It is associated with taking an organization into the future, finding opportunities that are coming at it faster and faster and successfully exploiting those opportunities,” writes Kotter.

“Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing useful change.”

Certainly people “bought in” to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. And, not only did King produce useful change in legislation, he also produced useful change in American culture.

In the end, leadership may not be the same as management. And, if the world could only have one, we’d wish for great leaders. If a law firm could only have one, it ought to seek successful management.

But, dreamers that we are, it’s easy to see why law firms can only hope to have both in its professionals.



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