When Presented with a Novel Situation: Enthusiasm and Decisiveness, Meet Authenticity, Competence and Candor


Jack H. (Nick) McCall*
Tennessee Valley Authority
Knoxville, Tennessee

How often have most of us heard the popular saying, “Fake it ‘till you make it?” When it comes to being an expression of daring and decisiveness, this expression implies confidence and decisiveness; however, it also implicitly contains a seed of something that borders on deceptiveness (and maybe a dose of arrogance), at the very least. Yet, for every lawyer-leader, there will inevitably be times when we are presented with situations and issues that are so novel to us that, when confronted by them at first blush, we may stumble for words. We may grasp at the straws (perhaps, a little desperately, sometimes!) of seeking to fashion a reasonable answer from our nearest analogies or precedents to the newly posed scenario, or at last, not look clueless or muted in the eyes of our clients or colleagues who are looking to us for decisive answers and guidance, and for us to get them those answers “right now.”

But, as lawyer-leaders and as trusted advisors to our clients, as well as to our professional colleagues, we must be authentic. Even though we want to present ourselves as dedicated, decisive and enthusiastic counselors and advocates, there is no greater “confidence multiplier,” if you will–both for our own benefit, as well as for the benefit of those we advise, support and lead–than authenticity.

True authenticity requires competence–including the skill to know when to say no and to admit to those counting on us that, just maybe, we do not have all the desired answers at our fingertips right now, but we can commit to getting those answers as quickly and as prudently as we can. And, experienced persons can often detect the whiff of “BS’ing” all too well, with a corresponding loss of faith and trust on the listener’s/recipient’s part that can often be engendered by this kind of performance.

Besides being a “best practice” from a leadership, advising and counseling perspective, we also know that it is fully within our ethical duties as lawyers to be competent, or ally ourselves with those who are. The introduction to Tennessee Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1 makes this point quite clear, as a fundamental matter of each lawyer’s professional responsibility:

A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

Comment 2 to Rule 1.1 adds: “A lawyer can provide adequate representation in a wholly novel field through necessary study. Competent representation can also be provided through the association of a lawyer of established competence in the field in question.”

Closely aligned to having the necessary degree of authenticity and competence is another attribute: candor. Candor—in essence, credibility, truth-telling and challenging —is necessary to develop the kind of intimacy and rapport that leaders (and subordinates; as is often said, this kind of thing is a two-way street) and trusted counselors must cultivate to breed the most successful relationships: whether those are representations of clients, or fostering collegial work environments in law office and corporate practice settings.

When a lawyer teams enthusiasm and decisiveness with the real authority—and authenticity–born of professional competence and the kind of integrity that goes hand-in-glove with candor, one has a winning combination, as a lawyer-leader and as a trusted advisor.

*The opinions and viewpoints contained in the article are those of the author and are not to be imputed to his employer or the U.S. government.

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