Leadership Lessons

Lessig or Lewis?

My Facebook wall this week lit up with friends posting links to two addresses to new graduates.  Some thoughts below the fold.At Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, Larry Lessig, back at Harvard and focused on corruption in public life, talked to newly-minted graduates about their roles in changing lives:

When you practice this law of real people, when you experience the way the law fails real people, when you see that the only medicine that you have to prescribe — bloodletting — helps no one except the vampires, recognize this:

There is no one who could justify the system we’ve allowed to evolve. There is no one who could defend its failures.

But the men — and ok, only men, and only white men, and mainly white men with property — who gave us our nation also gave us a promise of something more than this.

And so when you experience this law of real people, you should feel entitled to demand that it work better. However bad it is, you should be proud of your work. But remain proud only if you do something to push it to become as great as our proud tradition promised it would be.

When LBJ took up the cause of civil rights, he was told by his advisors he couldn’t. That he would lose, and doom his presidency. “What the hell is being a president for,” he replied and then passed the civil rights act of 1964.

Well I say, what the hell is being a lawyer for?

Up at Princeton, the author Michael Lewis (Moneyball, Liar’s Poker, The Big Short) sounded a broader but related theme.  Lots of news accounts of his speech picked up on how Lewis identified the role of luck in his career – thus missing the point entirely.  The point wasn’t that some people are lucky; the point was and is that with fortune comes obligation:

The “Moneyball” story has practical implications. If you use better data, you can find better values; there are always market inefficiencies to exploit, and so on. But it has a broader and less practical message: don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

My Facebook friends seem to prefer Lessig to Lewis, no doubt because Lessig is a great scholar and a great secular  preacher and, to be frank, a friend to many of us.  Both talks have important things to say.  But if I were to choose just one, I think that Lewis has the better of the season. 

I wasn’t going to write about this at all, but my Pittsburgh friend David Radin (that’s @dradin) tagged me in a tweet that pointed to this Forbes piece about leadership:  Courageous Leaders Don’t Make Excuses … They Apologize.  I think that the piece has it right, but I’ll put the argument a bit differently, using Lewis’s scale:  Great Leaders Aren’t Afraid to be Accountable.   Accountability is my term for Lewis’s obligation, and my frame for Lessig’s call to legal arms. 

Lewis and Lessig are both talking about the meanings and implications of leadership. 

I think a lot about leadership.  I’ve posted things here over the years on the topic, in law, for lawyers, and in life generally.  Here’s a self-selected list of my greatest leadership hits: 

What do these things — Lessig, Lewis, the Forbes piece, my earlier posts — have in common?  Beyond the fact that they are all, in my view, about leadership itself?

One is what sociologists would call the “embedded” or historical and institutional context of leadership and accountability.  No one, least of all Lessig or Lewis or any new lawyer, can or will be a leader or a life-changer on his or her own. 

Two, related to the first but perhaps more important, is the disconnect between public mythologies of leadership and the actual practice of leadership.  Public mythologies focus on courageous iconoclasts, on extroverts (what in an earlier life my employers called “the seamless personality”), and on individuals who overcome obstacles and succeed despite the odds.  The practice of leadership is often more subtle and less public:  leadership involves inspiring others to act and succeed (public mythologies can help with that, but not always), and helping others to achieve their goals or have their needs satisfied.   That disconnect often has pernicious effects:  What we think we want from leaders, and what we really need from leaders, can be quite different things.  We can’t always get what we want, but we all too often don’t get what we need.  The legal profession today, including academic law, is Exhibit A in that regard.  Maybe later I’ll have the time and the courage to explain that cryptic statement, but lots of people will read their own preferences into it, and most of their interpretations will be pretty accurate.

To their great credit, I think that both Lessig and Lewis, who are contemporaries (of each other and of me), have practiced the leadership that they preach, even if they have done so in very, very different ways and even if they reflect their experiences differently.    And in very different ways, to very different audiences, they have highlighted the disconnect that I describe above.  Someone asked me earlier this year whether I think that anyone can be a leader.  And I said, in all honesty, that I think that anyone can.

To sum up:  New law grads and new college grads, you’ve worked hard.  But you’ve been the recipients of great fortune as well:  love, support, and opportunity. 

You are accountable for your success.

5 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons

  1. I don’t believe in luck. I believe that what would be called luck in my life is the mysterious workings of my higher power. But regarding an obligation flowing from luck: What is the philosophical basis for asserting that “luck” imposes a duty to the “unlucky”?

  2. That “luck” imposes a duty to the “unlucky” is Lewis’s proposition, not mine; I’ve offered a different formulation.

    That said, neither formulation really needs a (formal?) philosophical justification. The bit in Lewis’s speech about duty is, I think, a casual, rhetorical flourish. He’s exhorting people to act – to use their skills, and talents, and knowledge – to help other people. Why help other people? Read Kant. Read Bentham. Read the Bible. There are lots of ways to get there from here.

    The most difficult thing about teaching law students is persuading them that the law / law school / the legal profession is not about *them.* It’s about *other people.*

  3. If the mysterious workings of your higher power have elevated you to a position of economic or social privilege without requiring of you or instilling in you the desire to help the less fortunate, then you are unlucky indeed. For it is only through acts of generosity and kindness that any of us know love. That essential human experience, without which society devolves into Thrasymachus’ ideal of might being right. Therefore you can not know the obligation flowing from (good) luck, as you have none.

  4. I just think it’s sloppy to say if you get something you have to give something back. Part of good leadership is being clear about why you stand where you stand. To the extent that young law students show a lack of generosity, it’s possible that their leaders are failing them in the muddiness of their thought. I don’t find it clarifying to read that if I don’t grasp the asserted obligation it’s because, so far, I am unlucky.

  5. I certainly agree that teachers can be and often are muddy in their teaching, especially in law schools — although my point (if not Lessig’s) is hardly limited to law students, and generally, it’s not limited to students at all.

    That said, I don’t think that the concept of accountability (giving – which may or may not be giving *back*) is so elusive that people have to be hit over the head with it in order to see or understand it. The idea of giving is, as Michael Burke intimates above, pretty fundamental to human society; I’d say that what we see in our students are the effects of accumulated layers of cultural crud that obscure it. To be clear, I’m just repeating my point above about the idea that their experience of the law is principally about others, rather than about themselves.

    I don’t read anywhere that one who doesn’t grasp the asserted obligation is, so far, unlucky.

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