Most law firms are paradoxical organizations with internal competing values, and contradictory ways of organizing, addressing issues, and behaving. These contradictions are rooted in the individual motivations, values and biases grounded in each attorney or staff member, and often inhibit the ability to develop a “one” firm outlook, versus multiple individual viewpoints. In turn, leaders at both at the functional and cultural levels are often limited in their ability to see the weaknesses in their own perspectives, to understand the advantages of opposing perspectives, and to identify and take a timely course of action, in the best interest of the firm.

In his article “Mastering Competing Values: An Integrated Approach to Management,” Quinn suggests four different approaches where competing values clash with leadership and management. Any of these sound like your firm?

  • Irresponsible Country Club: Uncontrolled individualism, inappropriate participation, unproductive discussion, and permissiveness over what is or isn’t acceptable behavior. Perspectives and viewpoints that are “always the priority” or “right” are randomly allowed.
  • Oppressive Sweat Shop: Individualism that creates the expectation to respond or act with little direction or clarity as to goals, process or timing. “I say jump, you ask how high?”
  • Frozen Bureaucracy: Bound by rigid tradition and antiquated ways of doing things. The inability to change and respond, timely or appropriately.
  • Tumultuous Anarchy: Quick to act when a critical mass of support is garnered, regardless of the due diligence done; chaos as exemplified by political expediency, unprincipled opportunism, disastrous experimentation, or belligerence. “Do it because I said so, I don’t care what it costs or if it will produce results. Just do what I say.”

Competing values and behaviors often create tension for leadership and management tasked with moving a firm forward as one organization, which would seem consistent with the definition of a partnership, which most firms are. Instead, many firms are a conglomeration of sole and small group practitioners each striving to succeed via their perspective and their share of the organizational resources. Competing messages and actions are often the norm, which can lead to paralysis, and the inability to act because of inconsistent behaviors and communications.

As a leader, one must learn how to navigate the varying motivations, values, perspectives, politics and sub-cultures that exist in any organization, particularly a law firm. This includes understanding what values and perspectives drive the behaviors of all within the organization, and then working to resolve the paradoxes often created for leadership and management. Yet many law firm leaders lack the needed knowledge, skills and experience to do this well.

A leader must place in context the competing values of individuals and groups, and how these values influence behavior, if they are going to influence and persuade the organizational members to move toward more positive zones of operation. This requires careful analysis of the individual and group perspectives to determine what approach is typically demonstrated (i.e. what values are prevalent in the issue at hand). Ultimately, a leader unable to do this will be less successful in creating an effective and efficient organization. And common sense tells us this has a direct impact on the bottom-line.

Savvy leadership will take the time to understand the competing values, perspectives, and culture relevant to the issue at hand, before developing solutions and acting. The process may take longer, but will produce better, more sustained results, and is less disruptive in resolving the multitude of management paradoxes that arise. Savvy leadership requires an investment in leadership knowledge, skills and communications; self-awareness of motivations, values, behaviors and conflict; integration of strategy, tactics and accountability; innovative change grounded in research and planning; creation of continuity and consistency in process; and, expressed, clear goals and expectations for productivity.

How savvy is your firm and its leadership to lead in the face of competing values? Where do your current and future leaders develop these talents, if they do?


Quinn, R. E. (1988). Mastering competeing values: An integrated approach to management. In Beyond rational management. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.

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About Judy Hissong

Judy Hissong is the President of Nesso Strategies. A former law firm Chief Operating Officer, she helps firms become more profitable by developing leaders. Her mission is “world domination for Good.” By creating actionable, lightbulb moments that leaders want to share and spread, she intends to improve the world one person at a time.

Judy Hissong