Leadership, Persuasion, Terminology

The problem with the term ‘leadership.’

By Leah Teague & Stephen Rispoli

Why are people resistant to leadership training and development? It seems that law faculty, staff, and students are all reluctant to participate in anything labeled “leadership.” Moreover, it seems that everyone is resistant to leadership. But why is that the case?

Personally, we believe it’s because people don’t really know what leadership means. It’s a buzzword that has been over-used and associated with CEOs. It is thus unsurprising that many people first hear the word and think that it means anyone using it is talking about training CEOs on how to manage people. And, to further complicate matters, they may not be wrong. The challenge is explaining that leadership means so much more than that.

Leadership is a frame of mind, not a position. In fact, it doesn’t really matter what position the person with a leadership mindset holds. The key is that the person with a leadership mindset is thinking about how she will be most effective in whatever role she plays in the life of an individual, an organization or the community. Isn’t that what lawyers do? Or at least, isn’t that what lawyers should aspire to do?

Every aspect of what lawyers are called upon to do in the representation of their clients is practiced leadership. By advising, advocating and influencing others, lawyers can address an identified need and, hopefully, accomplish a greater good. Utilizing the skills, talents and resources of lawyers can have a tremendous impact on society.

Serving in positions that require legal training, as well as serving in a wide array of other leadership roles, lawyers influence society.

Leah Teague & Stephen Rispoli

Serving in positions that require legal training, as well as serving in a wide array of other leadership roles, lawyers influence society. Lawyers have contributed to pivotal historical events including the founding our nation, the progressive era, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement. As heads of nations, universities, foundations, companies, legislative committees and public offices, lawyers have shaped our society and culture.

Today, lawyers advocate for important causes, counsel businesses and serve non-profits. Their involvement, through various roles and responsibilities, advance these causes and enhance these enterprises. Through legal education, lawyers learn strategy, persuasion, and ultimately how to command the room.

So, what do we call this? Why use the term “leadership” instead of something else? The issue, as we see it, is that other terms don’t fit. “Advocacy” doesn’t really work because that term is tied, in the legal profession anyway, to the courtroom. “Team building” is likely too constrained to working on inter-personal dynamics, not what should we be doing and how do I fit in (and that term is just as likely to cause people to hesitate about learning through doing it). “Social change” doesn’t capture personal growth associated with leadership of self. “Professional development” is getting closer but makes it seem as if the exercise is all about the person doing the learning to become better and does not include the “why” of leadership and its importance to society. “Social entrepreneurship” is too focused upon developing unique business models to address issues. Even if other terms are close, they are likely just as ambiguous and require just as much explanation. “Leadership,” though, checks a lot of boxes. Leading by example, leading through advice and counsel, leading a team, leading an organization, leading in the community, and leadership of self. It may not be perfect, but it’s the best descriptor we’ve come up with. What about you? What term do you use?

-LT and SLR