As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing John Leon, a leading authority and preferred legal counsel on Corporate Crisis Management. The founding partner of The Law Offices of John Leon, he is exceptional at navigating the complexities of a business crisis and circumventing its adverse impact on a client’s professional and personal reputation. He is often brought in at the earliest stages of impending situations to advise and prevent matters from escalating to litigation. Major companies as well as professionals also rely on his expertise in both the courtroom and the court of public opinion for legal trial representation, media management during high profile investigations, and the handling of any outside counsel for litigation or sensitive negotiations.
Considered among the top lawyers in the country, Mr. Leon has received numerous industry awards celebrating his many achievements.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Even at an early age, I always had an insatiable need to learn and accomplish a wide variety of pursuits — going into legal practice just seemed to organically lead all the other things of interest to me. When I was getting my degree at Florida International University, I was being recruited to clerk for some of the country’s major law firms, including Washington, D.C.’s premier lobbying firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand.
It was really quite natural that I first started practicing, I immersed myself in as many areas of the law including medical malpractice defense, insurance defense, commercial litigation, employment, regulatory, family, corporate, commercial and residential real estate, administrative, governmental procurement, federal and legislative affairs, land use and zoning and general appellate work for some of the state’s oldest and most prestigious law firms. During the first eight months of my career, I had already worked on over fifteen jury trials. In 2003, I founded my own firm where I found myself representing or dealing with several Fortune 500 companies.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Years ago, I won a jury trial. After that jury trial, the opposing party and their attorneys sought to overturn the jury’s verdict at a special hearing. Their motion was lengthy and complex. In response to their motion not set aside the jury verdict, I wrote a lengthy response that started as all motions do, with a summation of the facts of the case from the initial dispute between the parties to the eventual trial years later. Needless to say, the summation of the facts was an important and lengthy portion of my legal response to the motion from the opposing party. In an attempt to bring some humor to the proceedings I spent what seemed like several days composing the facts of the motion into a poem that rhymed hoping that the three-page poem would make everyone including the Judge laugh. No one did. Lesson: don’t waste your time writing long poems that rhyme for Court no one is going to read.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My first client. Not having known me or having ever worked with me prior, he just saw me in trial one time working on behalf of defendants and saw something in me that prompted him to introduce himself. And before I knew it, he had convinced me to hang my own shingle and represent him and his company as my first clients. He was my principal client for years and was the foundation of the firm as it stands today. He is also among the most important people in my life to this day.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I started my firm, and indeed my practice, from wanting to help people. So many who aren’t well-versed in the particulars of the law can find themselves in a quagmire of trouble simply because they don’t know how to navigate the legal or judicial system. Thus, in my current focus on corporate crisis management my aim is really to smooth over the rough waters people find themselves in so that it doesn’t reach a point where it becomes disastrous for both sides of a situation.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I lead a team of very skilled professionals. But that being said, we’re all human and emotions can often cloud judgments. Because of the nature of the work, in every single case we manage, it’s always uncertain and difficult. Whichever side of the argument we’re on, both sides feel they are the aggrieved party. So I lead my team and my clients by example in proceeding with cautious circumspection and not just express the first thing that comes to their minds. It’s so much more productive to see all sides of the equation so you can proceed with a sense of fairness and find a solution that works for everyone.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
As a rule, giving up isn’t in my DNA. I thrive on challenges so being driven comes naturally to me. And you need that kind of mindset if you intend to deal with crisis management because it is exactly that — every crisis is a challenge that requires finesse and skill in navigating, negotiating, and steering toward mutually-beneficial ground.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leadership itself is the most critical role because how you lead is how you achieve successful outcomes. And challenging times are when you can really see the true mettle of your leader. Someone who is volatile or easily distressed and scattered will inevitably take the company or organization in chaos and disfunction. A true leader has to set a tone in the direction of success. He or she should be steady in his or her resolve, should have the ability to see things from multiple perspectives and if not should be willing to listen to those around him or her who do. It’s a fine balance between understanding your own strengths and those of your team and know when and how to deploy them at the right time.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
In a crisis situation, I do believe in exuding a positive attitude. If you appear defeated then you may as well already be because not only will that bring down morale but will influence how your decisions are being made. I always advise my clients that their employees, shareholders, and clients are looking at them for the kind of confidence that shows you can overcome the crisis and come out on top. The best way to inspire is to feel inspired, to motivate others is to be motivated, and to engage the team is to be engaged in what you are trying to accomplish.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It depends on the news itself of course. But as a matter of course, my advice is always to have a strategy in place before making any announcements. While it doesn’t help to cover up news because inevitably it will leak out, it’s better to deliver it in your own terms. More complications arise from impromptu ways of communicating difficult news. It’s best to have all the facts on hand to support your communications strategy so you know what and how to divulge difficult news.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
True leaders know that what is certain today is not tomorrow. Part of the job is looking ahead so you are on the right course. Yes business factors can shift unpredictably and it is incumbent upon you to anticipate issues that may or may not arise down the road. Being prepared for them is how you have contingencies in place in case things go awry. You need to really have an understanding of your industry so you can tell where the wind is blowing.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle is to avoid reactions. You want to act, not react. Too many mistakes occur when a company is being led by immediate reactions when things become turbulent. You need to really take the time to examine the circumstances that precipitated the crisis in order to strategically respond with a sound course of action.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
As mentioned — first is a knee-jerk reaction. In the heat of the moment during a crisis it is so tempting for a company CEO to jump to a defensive reaction. This can take the form of an angry response, an early show of guilt, or a misguided move to compromise that can lead to more problems.
Secondly, another common mistake is not knowing when you need help. Too many companies aren’t prepared for a crisis. And another misstep I often see is assuming they can handle something on their own. They may often be too attached to their own position that they don’t see the point of the other side or they stumble into a legality they failed to consider.
Thirdly, assuming things will just go away on their own. It’s amazing really the power of denial. Many people still tend to think that by ignoring a problem it will just solve itself. In my experience, too many crisis situations could have been averted had management chosen to address the problem instead of staying quiet and hoping it would just go away.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Fortunately our work speaks for itself. We have a great track record that people and corporations know that we can be relied upon when they encounter a crisis. Depending on how you look at it, there never seems to be a shortage of people who need some kind of legal assistance. And we’ve reached a point where companies are expected to understand how important social responsibility is — so we’re just here to guide everyone to outcomes that benefit everyone involved.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
*Present yourself with a sense of dignified confidence. In manner and appearance, you will be looked upon for guidance. What you do and how you comport yourself will communicate information to everyone around you without you speaking a single world. In a crisis you cannot afford to look anything less that pulled together otherwise people will read things into it things that you do not want them to. This is the moment when your leadership is needed and you should be able to show everyone why you are the leader. This also presents a position that will be more difficult for people to read until you are good and ready to let everyone know.
*Provide a statement once you have your crisis strategy in place including what you can communicate to the public is necessary. It’s vital to arrive at a strategic plan once you’ve had a chance to study every detail and aspect of the situation. This has to be arrived only after you studied all the angles and anticipated all the potential outcomes. You do not want to craft a statement without the necessary facts to back them up or someone else can verify if you are or not telling the truth. You want to be factual without revealing too much. You want to be transparent as far is allowable not just by your own corporate codes but by legal constraints.
*Provide reassurance to your employees, the shareholders, and your clients. Once you have a plan, you need to take care of your own “people”. You need to let them know that things are being done to remedy the situation, that in this crisis you have things under control. In the course of trying to solve a problem, it’s very easy to lose sight of those who are most immediately impacted by the situation. It is necessary to take the time to assuage their fears and uncertainty.
*Be willing to negotiate. Come to the table with a sense that you may be required to compromise. A successful negotiation is predicated on both parties coming out vindicated but not necessarily completely satisfied. You need to give in order to receive. Just be aware of how much you are willing to trade in exchange for what’s most important to you.
*Plan ahead. Even after the crisis has been mediated or averted, you need to be aware that future problems may occur. You need to learn from the lesson of what happened and ensure that the same thing or a variation of it doesn’t happen again. Examine the protocols you have in place. Create new ones if necessary. It’s better to be prepared than to be caught unaware again at some point.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I live by every lesson I’ve learned — this is how you grow. But there are a few I never forget: “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me” and “Half of Life is simply showing up” both of these remind me that in the end we are responsible for our own fate. “We either win or learn. There is no losing” and “Failing is a necessary in business as well as life. Failure is a wonderful thing that should be embraced, because without it, true success is an impossibility” because both serve to help us understand that even when you falter, you can gain from the experience. Life doesn’t end until it does, so the best lesson of all when facing challenging times is to keep moving forward. It’s the only direction you want to go if you want to succeed.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can check our website: JohnLeonLaw.com