This is a two-part series on leadership. For lawyers and legal educators, the big test is now.
The first time I heard “smooth seas make poor sailors” was from Fred Bartlit, one of the founding partners of Bartlit Beck. I thought Fred was providing a guidance on how to become a great trial lawyer, i.e., through experience. But Fred corrected me and said he was making a larger point. Fred had been a U.S. Army Ranger and had led a platoon of soldiers in the early days of Vietnam. He was talking about the value of perspective, emotional control, making choices with consequences, and filtering out noise. His Army experience had given Fred a very valuable general tool that could be applied to anything, including a career in law.
That conversation took place a decade ago when the legal profession and legal education were still riding high. After the financial crisis in 2008-09, bleak job numbers and high debt loads gave rise to the scam blog movement followed by relentless negative coverage in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. With so much bad press and a weak entry-level job market, applications went into a free-fall. In the fall of 2012, Brian Tamanaha published Failing Law Schools, followed by Steve Harper’s The Lawyer Bubble in the spring of 2013.
Law professors and law school deans were unprepared for the depth and magnitude of the change. Moreover, there was evidence that things might get worst, as lawyers were now discussing the likelihood of a permanent market shift in how law was being practiced. Through decades of prosperity and growth, we had been conditioned to believe that an endurable normal would eventually return. But what if that wasn’t true? How would we know? Could the old guard be counted upon to make the call? If not, what then?
These questions were very much on my mind. Thus, in the fall of 2014, I convened a small, diverse group of Indiana Law alumni to discuss the topic of leadership. There was broad consensus that the legal profession/industry was entering a period of transformation and that these challenges were a microcosm of broader issues affecting our social, economic, and political institutions. I repeated the quote I heard from Bartlit and asked, “Where will the leaders come from?”
I also asked the group for their help in creating a course on leadership at Indiana Law. Everyone agreed to pitch in, but they scuttled the proposed name. “How about ‘Deliberative Leadership?,'” offered one seasoned alum who was CEO of a large company. “Before anyone agrees to lead,” he explained, “they should reflect on leadership in a deep and deliberate way.” That seemed like advice designed to win over a group of lawyers. And it did.
You know more about leadership than you think
During the course of those meetings with alumni, I conducted an exercise that mimicked the only formal leadership training I ever had. The exercise asks two sets of questions:
- Identify a person who has had a major positive influence on your life. What did you learn from them? How did you learn it (e.g., through words or behaviors or some combination)?
- Identify a leader from your past who you decided to follow. Why did you decide to follow them? What were their sources of authority (based on job title, work experience, moral character)?
The purpose of this exercise is to surface the fact that we already possess keen insights on leadership by virtue of our life experience. In modern times, leaders don’t have power or influence without the benefit of followers. Thus, who have we decided to follow? Invariably, the answer has a strong overlap with who has had a positive influence on our lives.
As an acknowledgement of the alumni who participated in my working group, I wrote up the results and shared it with them. See Summary of Leadership Exercise Conducted with Indiana Law Alumni, Indianapolis, IN, Oct. 23, 2014. I continue to use this exercise. And each year, I get essentially the same results.
Deliberative Leadership at Indiana Law
After I wrote up a detailed course proposal, I submitted it to the Indiana Law’s Educational Policy Committee. On the eve the committee vote, I asked my colleague, the committee chair, if he thought the course was a good idea. He said, “Over at the business school, they have faculty who are experts on this topic.” After a slight pause that gently pointed to my lack of qualifications, my colleague commented on the thoroughness of the proposal and the customary deference given to tenured faculty. “Let’s see how it goes.”
One element of a high quality course is the quality of teaching. A second, more subtle element is course design — i.e., how the classroom is run and the mechanisms for student learning. In this case, I believed it was crucial to avoid the familiar role of professor as subject matter expert. I didn’t know very much about leadership, and my students knew it. But I had sincere curiosity and a few ideas on how to make the class work courtesy of the alumni working group and a few other resources.
Designing the course
Consulting with practicing lawyers, including former students, in your course design can be both a rewarding and humbling experience.
Perhaps the most humbling was an observation make by a former student who was the youngest member of the alumni group. She had just started a clerkship on the Indiana Supreme Court. Prior to law school, she was a grade school teacher through Teach for America. In reviewing my detailed course proposal, my former student remarked, “have your thought about learning objectives?” After I wrote them up, she edited them, making them active and specific.
Another source of valuable input came from a former student who was still at the law school during his summer bar prep. Over lunch with a group of fellow grads, I explained that I was worried that students in my new class would sit back and become spectators. That very act, I said, would undermine the entire endeavor.
My former student replied, “why don’t you use a Harkness diagram.” Having no idea what he was talking about it, he told the story of how, as a poor kid from Chicago, he ended up at the elite Phillip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He also explained that most of the pedagogy at Exeter requires students to “lead the class.” The instructor’s role is to formulate the reading assignments and track the discussion as it takes place around a oval-shaped Harkness table. Below is an example of a Harkness diagram:
In tracking the class discussion, the balance of airtime is immediately apparent. My student told me that the Exeter format had forced him into critical thinking at a very young age and that nothing in his law school experience had come close to a similar level of classroom engagement. Suffice it to say, I adopted the method.
Students in charge
As I continued to ruminate on how to design this new leadership class, I was struck by my student’s comment that students at Exeter “lead the class.” This echoed one of the observations in the Carnegie Foundation’s Educating Lawyers report that law school stunts student development by elongating the process of passive classroom learning and delaying the act of applying the knowledge in context.
Reflecting upon these insights, I decided that a cornerstone of Deliberative Leadership would be student-led classes. Students would be divided into five teams of four. After the first two weeks, which I would lead (and fully exhaust my then-limited knowledge of leadership), the student teams would be in charge. Each team would be responsible for two classes. One based on readings selected by lawyers I would invite to class. And a second based on a topic and readings selected by each team.
This course design has many benefits and very few downsides. Among the benefits is the use of crowdsourcing to identify leadership materials worthy of inclusion in class. Thanks in substantial part to the many lawyers who have been invited to class, I have built up quite a library of articles on leadership and, much to my surprise, a handful of especially valuable resources on followership. (Gary LeClair of Post 053 was a guest in 2015. His handwritten annotations on a followership article left a big impression on students. In 2018, an alum of the 2015 class returned and quoted LeClair: “Don’t manage your time; manage your energy.”)
A second benefit of the student-led crowdsourcing method is the opportunity to observe patterns. When the same resources get selected over multiple years, or when the same themes get drawn from disparate readings, some of the best working tools are revealed.
A third benefit is to get inside the heads of my students, who are now typically more than a quarter century my junior. Over the years, topics selected multiple times include overcoming fear (invariably one of the best classes), stress management, creativity and innovation, diversity in the profession, work-life balance, saying no, and the impact of the billable hour culture. How can I influence what I don’t understand? When I want to learn about my students — a very powerful future demographic — all I need to do is show up and listen.
This post is not long enough to fully explain the course’s assessment system. If you’re curious, see Deliberative Leadership syllabus. However, there is one fairly unusual assessment method that consistently advances the course’s learning objectives.
The class meets once a week for two hours over the course of a 13-week semester. Starting with Class 1, I circulate a half-sheet assessment rubric that is loosely based on the “hotwash” debriefing method I learned from Jeff Carr, a well-known general counsel who no shortage of opinions on leadership (albeit backed up by a track record of impressive department results). The rubric is pictured to the right [click to enlarge].
For the first two weeks, the student are grading me, albeit with useful formative feedback that I can reflect on and apply in the future. The complete feedback is collated and posted for everyone to see. Starting in week 3, students are assessing the class organized by the student teams. This is designed to feed the “double-loop learning” method pioneered by Chris Arygris and Donald Schon. Double-loop learning is the road to practice mastery. And, as I demonstrate to my students, it can be retooled for leadership.
It is somewhat comical and sobering to see the initial reluctance of students to read and digest feedback on how peers perceive them and others. Students are reluctant because processing feedback is difficult emotional labor. It can also be rationalized away as a “soft skill” that can be put off to a day that never comes. Yet all day long, the perceptions of others is what determines our fate, including our fitness to lead. Through this iterative process, I am trying to show my students that their future success is largely within their own control. The major limitation is not intelligence, which they in abundance. It’s a willingness to continuously observe and learn. Cf. Kiser, How Leading Lawyers Think ch. 8 (2011) (discussion of “perpetual learning,” often through feedback loops, as key to trial lawyers who consistently outperform their peers).
Call to Action speeches
The last week of class, students are required to deliver five-minute “call to action” speeches on any topic of their choosing. The speech has to be written out in advance. Five minutes is roughly 750 words.
This is a course requirement that almost didn’t make the cut, as some of the younger members of the alumni group voiced concern that a speech in front of peers would be a source of major student stress. Yet, that objection was shot down by a mid-career female partner at a large law firm who remarked, “Last week, I had to give a speech to my fellow partners on the need of the firm to put substantial resources into its diversity efforts. I can tell you, I wish someone back in law school had forced me to give a call to action speech.”
In the four years I have been teaching Deliberative Leadership, one of the most startling aspects has been the evolution of each class into a community of professionals who have learned to respect and trust one another, even when they differ widely on important issues. Prior to the class, the students tend to have opinions of one another, albeit developed from a distance. But after listening to their peers over the course of 12 weeks, they learn that their fellow students are much deeper and more interesting than they ever imagined. Thus, during the Call to Action speeches, the room is filled with energy, as students root for each other.
Although it was not my intention, Deliberative Leadership may have become one of the few law school classes where someone’s earnest pre-law personal statement can be taken out and re-read as something real, vital, and important. Occasionally I get lucky. That was the case here.
Through four years of Deliberative Leadership combined with additional life experience, I have developed a framework to aid leaders in solving very difficult problems — the kind that now confront legal education and the legal profession. I will discuss that framework next week in Part II.
What’s next? See Studying leadership before the big test, Part II (057)