Are You Tough or Toxic?

Leadership skills are critical for lawyers, whether you're a sole practitioner with a two-person staff or the managing partner of a Big Law firm. But too often, attorneys don't make great leaders; they don't know the difference between being a tough boss and being a jerk. Truthfully, many law firms tolerated partners who were jerks -- as long as they had a big enough book of business. But that's starting to change, and employers of all types are realizing that bosses who are jerks may brining in business in the short-run, but in the long-run, they can cause more harm than good.

What's the difference between tough and toxic? "In general, toxic leaders act aggressively toward subordinates, are highly critical, and play mind games designed to keep people off balance. They often threaten or intimidate the people they lead through vicious insults or angry tirades. Sometimes they engage in physical attacks too. Their subordinates generally hate or fear them, often both, and try to stay out of their line of sight." Sound familiar? Unfortunately, I suspect many of us lawyers have had supervising attorneys who fall into this category.

In contrast, "tough bosses operate in a professional and self-controlled manner, are highly self-aware and emotionally mature, and make decisions with the best interests of both people and the organization in mind." Hopefully, this too sounds familiar! With luck, you've had fantastic bosses who have stretched you and made you--and the company--better.

So how do you know if you are a tough or toxic boss? In SHRM's "Are You a Toxic Leader or Just a Tough Boss?: Knowing the difference can determine whether your organization will sink or soar," Teresa A. Daniel and Gary S. Metcalf created checklists so you can test yourself.