What are your credentials for being a leader?


How do you manage and provide leadership and guidance to your employee when you are not the subject matter expert? The employee is the subject matter expert.

That’s what a client asked recently. She’s a lawyer and I act as a mentor to her. It’s such a good question I wanted to share it with you in case you get something from it. I love the question and I love even more that she asked it.

Consider who a lawyer is. A lawyer is an authority, one who knows about mysterious and highly technical matters that are unknown to most people. A lawyer is always in the position of knowing more than the person to whom they’re speaking; if they don’t, they won’t be being a lawyer for long.

You could say the being of a lawyer is “I know” or “I know more than” or “I know better”.

Not only that, but a lawyer is always moving in the realm of the known. The outcomes are known (there are two or three possible outcomes), and the routes are known, if multiple.

No matter how obscure the route – for example, a lawyer finds an arcane statute or case that provides an unusual defence – it must, by definition, be pre-existing. That’s the meaning of precedent. If it’s been done before, said before, it can be used; if it hasn’t been done or said before, it does not effectively exist in law.

The lawyer’s job is to fit the facts of a new case to a pre-existing template, to assimilate the new to the known. The law does not deal in the unknown.

Therefore, to have a lawyer raise a question about being in the position of not-knowing, not being the subject matter expert, is a startling thing. It takes courage to ask that as a lawyer, particularly when the potential consequences of not-knowing-most, not-being-right, can be serious for both lawyer and client, and I was moved she asked it.


Like all great questions, her question is powerful when it is dwelt in and it’s what I recommended to her. I also shared something I’d discovered for myself about the issue of credentials which is another way of stating the question: ie, if I don’t know the most, what are my credentials for being a leader?

Last year, when I was thinking about standing up in front of people talking to them, coaching them on their written communication (as I do in my business), I had a fear someone would heckle me in the audience. They’d challenge me, dispute or disparage what I was saying, and I’d feel humiliated and disempowered in the face of the audience. It didn’t put me off starting the business or doing what I was doing but it was a fear in the background.

Then, some months ago, I got that it wasn’t because I knew the most or that I was the best communicator that I was standing up in front of people talking to them about this matter they are intimately attached to – their language. It wasn’t that at all; it was that I had a greater commitment to communication than others did. My credentials for calling myself a teacher, a coach, were not my skills; it was my commitment.

When I got this, everything changed. Now, if someone were to challenge or dispute what I’m teaching, I can be at ease. I can say good for them, and mean it. It’s not about me giving them something they don’t have, not about me being a hero and looking good. It’s about communication being born in the world, and I don’t care how it happens. All I know is that by me being there, it’s possible in a way it’s not if I’m not there.

No matter what someone says, I have my commitment and my commitment is inviolate. I can stand like a rock in front of a room. I cannot be messed with. I cannot be messed with because it’s not me at all; it’s the commitment.


Image: Portrait of Three Lawyers by Pietro Uberti (1671-1762)


10 thoughts on “What are your credentials for being a leader?

  1. Every case that goes full stretch has a winner and a loser, so lawyers are constantly reminded of their own ignorance.

    Agree quickly with your adversary …

    I am not a leader, but I imagine good leadership is a service. Any servant has to identify with his master’s limitations. It is significant that Alexander, Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Nelson, Churchill, for example, were all able to guide and inspire their experts by identifying with their limitations and instilling confidence in the face of the unknown.


  2. One of the most painful requirements is keeping up-to-date reading and attending lectures. Storm clouds of possible negligence claims threaten livelihood and darken every aspect of existence.

    Retirement is thus a happy release from years of bondage and, after a period of cold turkey, one rejoices in being ignorant of one’s ignorance. ;)


  3. Once when I was a greenhorn (I’m not sure I was ever anything else), an old hand told me, “No-one ever learnt anything by talking.” By this he meant “Listen to your client”. The astute client learns quickly about his own circumstances, usually has a lot to teach you about the law affecting them and certainly sets you in the right direction for research, which is always necessary.


    • Greenhorn … is this the source of the phrase “being green”, ie, being a novice? I also saw the term “inkhorn” recently which I don’t think I’ve ever come across before. Your old hand was a wise old hand.


Your comment will be an adornment to this blog ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s