“Leader, shepherd .. coach”​

I telephoned an external  lawyer last week and went through to his voicemail: “Hi, this is the Coach. …  Please leave a message.”   The invitation was clearly recorded for a junior sports team, and I didn’t get the answer I sought at the time, but I found it reassuring. It made me think about leaders as coaches and the distinction between leaders and managers, summarised well recently by Fiona Craig in the Law Society Journal (the link is at the bottom of this post) and the subject of many cartoons e.g.


The essential difference between a manager (or boss)  and a leader must surely be that only the leader inspires the team to strive cohesively for a common goal, and coaches each team member, supporting their continuous self-improvement, as part of that.

At a “continuing education” workshop last year I was lucky to hear Prof. David Wilkins of Harvard Law School speak. I learned much and have tried to apply the lessons learnt since then.  David confirmed that leaders of legal teams typically spend large portions of their work time “doing the technical work” themselves rather than delegating it to competent colleagues: typically so as to reassure themselves of their own expertise and so as to demonstrate that they are “leading by example from the front”.  (I often succumb to this, and it probably applies more broadly than just to lawyers.)  A truism here: that cannot be the  best use of the leader’s expertise which could instead be leveraged by coaching (and re-assuring) colleagues  as they experience ever more challenging work. Effectively – and counter-intuitively –  the leader needs to step back.

I wonder whether that is what Nelson Mandela meant when he said in his book “Long Walk to Freedom”:   “A leader… is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”


[Fiona Craig’s very good article on Leaders v Bosses  is  on page 42 here: https://www.lawsociety.com.au/resources/journal/LSJOnline/2016/December/index.htm    ]


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