“I fundamentally disagree” said John Cocksure, shaking his head in the exaggerated manner of someone comfortable in the limelight of their own making.
He then lolled backwards on his chair, his legs stretched out in front of him and slowly placed his hands behind his head. The sweat patches under his arms confirmed the whiff of practised posturing that was now filling the room.
My first thought was to try and remember what on earth I had just said, because even after all these years, if challenged I am still likely to assume I must have said something stupid.
My second thought, as I looked upon his casual slump and his studied “now I have your attention” manner, was to recall past moments of similar challenge and it is rarely a moment of insight and inspiration. Only a certain type of man engages in this self-indulgent look-at-me shithousery. Indeed, I reflected afterwards, that in thirty-five years of being with lawyers, I have never ever seen a woman do this in a training session, at an event, in a client meeting or a team meeting.
I invited John Cocksure to elaborate a little, perhaps using words rather than performative body shapes.
“I just don’t believe what you said is true.”
I had a choice at this point; whether to accept that every opinion is valid, agree to differ and move on, or to dive headlong into the rabbit hole of possibility (despite the evidence in front of me) that John Cocksure might be in charge of a functioning brain and therefore had something interesting to say.
The point I had been making just before his head-shaking and wet armpit display, had been that at some point in our careers all lawyers will face an ethical challenge. Some will notice and react, some will notice and choose not to react, and some will not notice at all.
It turns out that John Cocksure has never had such a challenge and never will. He mostly knows this because he knows his own mind and besides, you can’t make an omelette without cracking eggs, and business is business, and because “what-ifs” don’t get deals done.
As the morning unfolded, you may be surprised to learn that John Cocksure found it hard to accept he might be wrong about anything. The more categorically something came out of his mouth, the more obviously right he must be because he trusted his gut.
He held forth often and each time the room fell silent. His colleagues knew better than me that life was too short to engage in a debate. Not only was he sure he was right, but because of the silence around him he was also sure no-one disagreed with him.
This is perhaps excusable in the poor souls who shout on buses, but as he was a senior lawyer in a significant company, I was pretty appalled. His General Counsel told me after the session that John Cocksure was a really good business partner and that the business loved his certainty and bravado. He described John as someone who was a better leader than manager, and someone who created energy in the room.
I described John as a “significant conduct risk” and a “bloody nightmare.”
I suspect I might not be invited back, but then I have always felt that if my work had to be lashed together with expedient flattery and ego-washing, it would be a leaky old boat to set sail in.
The issues with John Cocksure are clear and obvious, but they are also clear and obvious to his boss. The General Counsel has therefore found a way to excuse the behaviour and so the behaviour has become normal.
I hope John Cocksure is everything positive his boss thinks he is, but even if the General Counsel is right, the negatives should not be ignored. His “energy” silenced the room. His opinions were ignored because he himself never listened, and he ruined the opportunity for conversation, reflection and collaboration.
It is the General Counsel, however, who is the more significant problem, because under his leadership his team are adrift in their own self-silenced indifference. The height of the team’s ambition is to get through the day. No learning, no growth, no change. A slide into mediocrity with only the baleful sound of the ballad of John Cocksure for company.
One day soon John Cocksure will fancy himself as the General Counsel. I suspect he already thinks himself better than his boss. Thank goodness there will be no ethical challenges for him, as he brings his energy to the room.