Calling into question the importance of the general counsel’s leadership

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management (Harvard Bus. School Press 2006) at 192-3 amass research evidence to show that leaders “actions rarely explain more than 10 percent of the differences in performance between the best and worst organizations and teams.” (Emphasis added; see my post of Jan. 14, 2007 on correlations and explanatory power.). In their view, most scholars of leadership agree “that the effects of leadership on performance are modest in most conditions, strong under a few conditions, and absent in others.”

Evidence to the contrary should cause a person to revise a prior belief – such as that the most important determinant of a law department’s effectiveness is its general counsel. I have believed that to be true (See my post of Dec. 19, 2005 about leadership as a key goal.) but must now reconsider.

Pfeffer and Sutton suggest three reasons why leaders make only a small difference. (1) constraints that they can’t change easily or at all, like the people in the department, the department’s role, expectations of clients; (2) similarity in education and outlook of general counsel, since most come from comparable socio-economic backgrounds, good law schools, good law firms, and clonish careers, a point especially true of internal promotes; and (3) law departments that need strong, influential leaders have the hardest time attracting them.

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