Life Lessons for Leaders

Heart-pounding and palms sweaty, five years ago I found myself walking down a sidewalk toward my future. At the end of that sidewalk was the first real-life military training instructor (i.e., drill instructor) I had ever seen. From the moment instruction began at Officer Training School, leadership was the focus. Even as an attorney joining the military, from the beginning I was an “officer first, attorney second.”  As a military officer and now a private practitioner, I know the value of leadership in all walks of life. Below are the first steps you can take toward becoming a better leader, and taking command of your life and your business.

As attorneys we are leaders in many ways—in our community, to our friends, to assistants or paralegals, but also to judges and senior partners. However, the concept that we are leaders almost never crosses our minds. This is a terrible mistake and the first lesson in leadership: recognizing that you are a leader. Attorneys live in a glass house. Our friends, co-workers and community members recognize our position. We are expected to be ethical and intelligent, and we are expected to be a source of knowledge for everyone who learns of our title. You are in a position of trust for almost everyone you meet, so recognizing and respecting your role as leader is of the utmost importance.

The second lesson is that good leadership begins by leading the most stubborn person of all—yourself. I believe the two most important leadership traits are the ability to set goals and integrity. Both of those traits originate within the leader. The ability to take charge of your life and living with integrity are pre-requisites to effective leadership, because leadership is personal to you—YOU are the leader, not your firm or organization. To command others, you must be in command of yourself.

Lastly, recognize that leadership is not always from a superior to a subordinate. You can and should be a leader, even as a subordinate. A subordinate supports his or her leader’s goals, but more importantly, a good subordinate takes charge of the tasks within his or her area of responsibility, and  provides the boss with information and effective feedback. When you are sitting at counsel’s table or across from your boss, do not think you have been relieved of duty. “Leading up” is just as important as all other types of leadership.

Let’s get back to goal setting. A leader directs, which is exactly what we expect of a leader. Perhaps to many of us, the definition of “leader” is one who provides a goal for us to accomplish. A hill to take. A brief to write. Leadership without direction is not really leadership. Many good leaders say, “Lead from behind,” meaning to empower your troops to accomplish tasks without micromanaging. However, those you are leading still need direction. In our personal life, we take charge of ourselves when we set goals. We look into the future and decide what it is we want to accomplish, who we want to be, and then set course in that direction. In the business context, a good leader sets goals for the business and takes action to reach those goals. I am sure we all have to-do lists, but goal setting as a leader encompasses more. It means thinking ahead, and establishing goals for next month, next year, five years from now, 10 years from now, for retirement, etc. A person or business with only a daily to-do list is lost. You are reactionary, moving towards nothing but the next day.  An army that wins a battle may have a cause to celebrate today, but that win is meaningless if it does not form part of a strategy to win the war. Wayne Gretzky said, “You will miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” For a leader the situation is far more basic: You will never accomplish a goal unless you set a target. You must be deliberate to set goals for both tomorrow and for the future.

Second, integrity. You may substitute “trustworthiness” or “honor.” They all mean similar things, but are the very bedrock of leadership. Good leaders are followed because people believe in them. A person without integrity may have followers who accomplish tasks, but that is power or coercion rather than leadership. Good leaders are force multipliers, because they create an atmosphere that empowers individuals to accomplish the goals they set. A follower who trusts a leader understands the goals are honest and to the benefit of the individual or the organization. This empowers people to take the goal upon themselves, think independently and be motivated to accomplish the goal.

The true power of leadership rests in empowering others. Imagine if a paralegal truly felt you were a person of integrity. Imagine if a judge truly felt you were a person of integrity. The list goes on, but the point is simple: people will want to accomplish the goals you set when they trust you. With trust, a follower has the confidence to take on a goal as his or her own. This all begins with integrity. As such, a leader must set an example by living with integrity.

Go out and lead, but begin with leading yourself. When you take control of yourself and live with integrity, others will notice, and they will want to follow.

About the Author

is an attorney with McGuire Wood & Bissette, P.A. in Asheville, NC, and is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, where he served in the Judge Advocate General Corps. Will can be reached at

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