Leadership & Humility: An Interview with Homer Deakins

In his landmark book, Good to Great, Jim Collins lists five levels of leadership. When people think of leaders, they usually envision Collins’s “Level 4 leader”—the bold, charismatic “I’m in charge/the buck stops here” type. Collins asserts, however, that enduringly great organizations possess the highest level of leader, a “Level 5 leader” who combines strong personal will with humility. 

One such leader is Homer L. Deakins, Jr. When he became CEO in 1985, Ogletree Deakins was a relatively small Southeast law firm. Under Deakins’ stewardship over the next 15 years, the firm adopted an entrepreneurial approach to expansion to serve clients nationally. The firm has now grown to nearly 700 attorneys in 44 locations across America and in Europe. 

Now 77 years old and the firm’s Chairman Emeritus, Deakins remains involved, helping with acquisitions and other projects while continuing to serve clients. 

JATHAN JANOVE: Do you agree with Collins on the importance of combining humility with willpower? 

HOMER DEAKINS: Absolutely! A good leader doesn’t let his or her ego stand in the way. It should never be about the leader. It should always be about the organization. But to be an effective leader, I think you also have to have a strong determination to get things done. 

JJ: How have you applied these concepts? 

HD: When I took over as Managing Partner/CEO, I felt our culture and business model needed to change. We were a conservative, control-oriented firm. For example, we would not open a new office unless one of our existing attorneys agreed to open it for us. But I felt we should instead be seeking talented attorneys outside of the firm. Find them, trust them, and give them an opportunity to succeed. 

JJ: Did you encounter resistance to this new approach? 

HD: Oh yes! Although many partners enthusiastically supported the new direction, others resisted it. They felt we were being naïve, taking too many chances. 

JJ: How did you overcome this resistance? 

HD: Lots of listening. Persistence. Making sure to emphasize that it was not about me, it was about the health of the firm. Not letting my feelings get in the way. Sometimes turning the other cheek, such as when a former partner said, “The only reason we’re opening an office in Texas is because Homer wants to go home!” [Deakins began his career at Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston.] 

JJ: What shaped your approach to leadership? 

HD: My first experience came from my own bosses. They used the military approach popular after World War II. The boss gives the orders while you do what you’re told and don’t ask questions. I didn’t care for this approach. I felt such bosses limited their own success. Control freaks don’t benefit from the ideas of others and they don’t inspire people’s best efforts. 

JJ: What prompted you to adopt a different approach? 

HD: My clients, especially some of my Japanese clients. Using methods they learned from an American, they created dedicated employee involvement programs, letting employees truly participate in decision-making and experience a personal sense of success. I thought I could apply these principles in my role. 

JJ: Can you share an example? 

HD: Sure. Nissan opened its first U.S. plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. It incorporated employee involvement programs and active worker participation, such as in focus groups and roundtables. 

JJ: What impact did you observe? 

HD: The United Auto Workers (UAW) saw the Smyrna plant as a critical steppingstone in its membership drive and pulled out all the stops to organize it. Yet the union lost the election by a margin of two to one. Later, after the workforce had doubled, the UAW tried again. And again, it lost by a two-to-one margin. 

In both cases, the employees carried the day. They organized their own “Vote ‘No’ Committee.” Despite union pressure, they actively campaigned against unionization. I think this was a direct result of Nissan’s employee-involvement programs and the feeling they created that employees were active participants in the company’s mission. 

JJ: Do you have advice for aspiring Level 5 leaders? 

HD: Identify a very few, simple, understandable core goals. Pursue them with strong determination. Get rid of the idea that you’re in a leadership role because you’re smarter or know more than everyone else. Learn from others. Give people a chance to participate and enjoy a sense of success. Be curious. Pursue other people’s ideas even if they don’t seem that great at first. Be transparent—focus on sharing information versus guarding it. Last, but not least: Listen!

JJ: What role does humility play when a leader has to make painful decisions? 

HD: A critical one. The worst time to get caught up in your own ego is while making the tough or painful calls. 

Over the years, I’ve had to fire attorneys. It’s never easy, but I’ve always tried to be direct, face–to–face, honest and respectful—“It’s not about you or me; it’s about what I believe is in the best interest of the firm.” 

I’m happy to say that over the years, I’ve developed positive relations with many of the people I fired. I’ve had lunches where we talked about what they learned and how they’ve grown. 

JJ: You’re 77 and still actively involved in the firm. Why? 

HD: As long as I’m able to help, I’ll stick around. When I’m not able to help, I’ll stop. 

What level are the leaders in your organization? Do they combine humility with personal will? Do they actively involve employees as Deakins describes? 

If you’re in a leadership position, what are you doing to achieve or remain at Level 5? 

Topics:  Business Development, Career Development, Managers

Published In: Professional Practice Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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