Top leaders are secret politicians

To become a senior partner, you need to be a highly skilled politician who appears to shun politics

“The senior partner doesn’t always understand how influential he is. He’s very modest, quite self–effacing … He is not himself a player in that way at all … It’s simply because his own motivations in this world are, I think, very genuine and clean.” (Partner, global law firm.)

“Self-effacing”, “clean”: words that you wouldn’t expect to find in any traditional list of leadership traits. It would be even harder to apply them with a straight face to any politician. Yet the person to whom they are applied is a successful leader in a global law firm. He also possesses highly developed political skills that he deploys to great effect.

My recently published research report, Who’s in Charge? Exploring Leadership Dynamics in Professional Service Firms, presents initial insights from my three-year, UK Government-funded study. It identifies some of the factors affecting the leadership dynamics of professional service firms (PSFs), including the concept of the leadership constellation, power in ambiguity, and the significance of social embeddedness. One point that surprises readers is the prevalence of politics.

The partners of PSFs like to present themselves as apolitical. Politics is associated with ‘climbing the greasy pole’ of the corporate world. Partners are supposed to act collectively in the interests of the firm, not in their own interests. They will not elect leaders who they think are politically motivated. 

Yet PSFs would grind to a halt without the deployment of political skills. PSFs are led by consensus. Building consensus involves negotiation, trade-offs and politically expedient compromises. Political action is rife in PSFs, but leaders need to maintain the illusion that they are apolitical – the act of a highly skilled politician.

And it’s not just the partners who need to be supremely skilled politicians. My research into management professionals in law firms highlights their complicated political interactions with partners and shows how their political skills enable them to lead without appearing to do so. As one long-serving law firm COO explains: “I have always been apolitical, which is why I think I have survived so long.”

To express the informal power dyn–amics of the PSF, I developed the idea of the leadership constellation, which overlaps and sits alongside the formal authority structure. In a PSF, an effective leader is someone who can navigate the dynamics of the leadership constellation to achieve his or her objectives.

My research uncovered some remarkable examples of leaders who brought about significant change while lacking the formal authority to do so, including a major restructuring of a partnership and a severe cost-cutting exercise.
Pulling off these changes required sophisticated political skills. As one global chairman explained: “We had very clear objectives but we let them come round to those objectives without feeling like they were led.”

Highly skilled politicians should be able to convince those around them that they are acting in other people’s best interests. This is one of the supreme skills of a truly effective law firm leader.

The report is available at: