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Management Series: professional-services

Reluctant Leaders and Autonomous Followers - Leadership Tactics in Professional Service Firms

How do leaders in professional service firms stake their claim for leadership and, in an environment where all workers consider themselves experts, how do they maintain this position of power?

Author(s): Professor Laura Empson - Cass Business School;

This research asks the question "In organisations characterised by extensive individual autonomy and contingent managerial authority, how do senior professionals exercise leadership?". The aim of the research is to delve more deeply into how leaders in professional service firms actually "do" leadership and, in particular, how they establish their claim to be considered as a leader. In this type of organisation in which everyone is an expert and no one wants to believe that anyone wields power over them, how do some individuals come to be accepted as first among equals? Once they have attained this position, how do they maintain it, and how do they actually get things done?

The study has identified three distinctive leadership tactics which are characteristic of the professional service firm environment of extensive individual autonomy and contingent managerial authority.

The first tactic is indirect and is a requirement for being accepted (and in some cases elected) as a leader by your peers: gaining and retaining legitimacy to lead through market success.

The second tactic is overt, recognised as coexisting in a dynamic tension within the partnership: enabling autonomy whilst maintaining control.

The third tactic is covert, denied or at least not acknowledged explicitly but understood intuitively by individuals identified by their peers as effective leaders: interacting politically whilst appearing apolitical.

The report begins with an overview of the leadership context in professional service firms and its implications, focusing on the concepts of power, plurality, and politics. It then briefly introduces the firms studied and describes how the research was conducted. Three separate sections analyse each leadership tactic in detail and introduce the phenomenon of the "reluctant leader". The concluding discussion explores further the nature and impact of the leadership tactics and explains how these contribute to the distinctiveness of leadership in professional service firms. It indicates some of the challenges that individual leaders may face in using these tactics and highlights the qualities of an effective leader in this context.

This is the second in a series of practitioner reports to be published from the ESRC-funded research study 'Understanding Leadership Dynamics in Professional Service Firms'. The first report "Who's in charge? Exploring leadership dynamics in professional service firms" is also available on Cass Knowledge. The research represents a ground-breaking study of leadership in three professional service firms in the accounting, consulting and legal sectors. Each firm is a global leader in its respective sector. The study is based on over 100 interviews conducted by Professor Laura Empson with senior professionals in 16 countries, supplemented by archival and observational analysis. The full study is available for download below.

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