Please Speak Up

Serena Williams caused quite a stir at the recent U.S. Open when she pushed back against a referee’s penalty calls. She ultimately lost the match and the chance for a landmark victory. Depending on your viewpoint, Serena either exhibited poor sportsmanship, or, she took a commendable stand on principle.

I go with the latter. That night I told my young son, “Stand up for your rights, always.” I told him Serena had the insight and courage to seize the moment and speak out. Had she remained silent and left the court without demanding an apology, her resentment would have festered and she would have blamed herself. She had to be respectful–not in the superficial sense of blindly obeying the referee, but in the deeper sense of being true to herself.

That’s the mark of a leader. There’s passion behind the action, and passion is an essential trait when one person is trying to inspire others to follow an example or take ownership of an argument. Kate Cooper, in an insightful article for Forbes, uses the example of the Serena controversy to argue that passion can trap the unwary leader. A leader must speak out passionately against wrongdoing, but passion is often misconstrued as being unprofessional.

Passion need not be a trap. It can be tempered with emotional intelligence and tailored to the situation. It can even be tamed into silence, as, for example, when a law firm leader works with a team writing briefs, sharing a meal and simply being around. The silent message is palpable. When a leader perceives an error and summons a colleague for questioning, the message is clear: I hear you; I see you. This kind of communication generates change and the opportunity to correct a wrong and put a better system in place.

Always maintaining a position of equanimity, the leader must do and say things that are respectful and impactful. There’s hardly ever a need to scream or break crockery (or tennis racquets) to make a point. If you have a commanding presence and speak softly, people will go silent to hear whatever you have to say.

But at some point, you do have to take a stand. If the employees of your boutique law firm are walking around unhappy, or leaving, and client ranks are thinning, closing your eyes won’t make the trouble go away. You’re just stalling the inevitable dissolution. In the end, we all have a “call to action” moment when we either decide to look away ineffectually, or, face the facts and make a move.

Richard Cassin, publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog, wrote about one situation that requires action in his post “Is Compliance Failing”? What someone has called the “age of hyper transparency” is bringing out the inner whistleblower in everyone, he wrote. The result is greater incentive to institute and faithfully execute compliance programs.

I see Cassin and Cooper as taking different routes to much the same point. Leaders influence others and drive change by standing up or, if appropriate, lying low and taking care of business. Sometimes it’s necessary to verbalize and admit omissions or transgressions, apologize and act swiftly to correct wrongdoing. Every situation is different and it takes skill and discernment to know which hat to wear to the occasion. If you’re a true leader, you know when to challenge the referee’s call, and when to keep your reaction to yourself and just go on playing the game.

This article appeared in Legal Business World, September 27, 2018. View full article here.