Stories of Leadership, Good and Bad: Another Modest Proposal for Teaching Leadership in Law Schools
42 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2021 Last revised: 23 Mar 2021
Date Written: February 1, 2021
Dangerous leaders. That’s how Anthony Thompson describes lawyers — leaders who are dangerously unprepared for the demands of that role. He argues, and in this article I agree, that law schools must take up the task of educating lawyers to take up the challenges they will face as leaders.
People instinctively turn to lawyers to lead. Despite all the lawyer jokes (and they are legion), lawyers hold what many describe as a disproportionate number of leadership positions–mayors, legislators, chairs, CEO’s, and presidents. There is a reason for this. It is true, as critics argue, that traditional legal education has devoted little conscious time or attention to educating future lawyers for leadership. But while law schools may not have focused consciously on leadership, in many ways, lawyers’ skills are what cause people to trust lawyers as leaders: the ability to make a clear-eyed assessment of the situation, to identify the material facts and the operative constraints, to consider options, to assess risks and opportunities, and to offer a rational plan forward. Law schools teach this; along with a good bit of legal doctrine, law schools teach critical analysis, analogic reasoning, and problem solving — colloquially called learning to think like a lawyer. These skills do serve a leader well. But are they enough? Probably not. Lawyers have been at the vortex of some of the most spectacular failures of leadership we have witnessed, including ENRON, the Flint Water crisis, and the General Motors ignition cartridge scandal. Do law schools leave graduates dangerously unprepared for the leadership positions they will assume, as Thompson argues?
In this article, I join those who say we do. I set out to make the case that law schools must focus carefully on leadership education, developing a curriculum tailored to the particular needs of future lawyer-leaders. Further, I agree with those who insist that leadership education must include attention to values — real attention, not just a passing reference to values as important, but a willingness to dig into the substance of values. Building on this, I argue that Dr. Mary Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values approach, originally developed for business schools, should be tailored to legal education and should be an essential part of leadership education for lawyers as a means to help students identify and learn to stand up for their own, their institution’s and society’s essential values.
I examine several related themes:
1. Recent failures of leadership and the scandals that have ensued make a compelling case that there is a crisis of leadership — at least value-informed, moral leadership. And the evidence shows that lawyers have been deeply involved in many of the most spectacular failures.
2. Because lawyers are often looked to as leaders, law schools must prepare law students for leadership.
3. In addition to the traditional leadership skills, leadership education must require students and faculty to engage rigorously in uncomfortably concrete discussions of values and must make the case for the crucial role values plays in good leadership.
4. In this regard, we must examine bad leaders as well as good, and the lessons bad leadership offers. And we must explore the essential relationship between leadership and followership, especially in the context of bad leaders and bad followers.
5. Leadership education should prepare students for informal leadership as both a way to protect important personal and more universal values (by stepping up when circumstances call for it), but also as a way for young lawyers to develop and demonstrate their own leadership competence and so prepare for formal leadership roles.
6. Dr. Mary Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values approach, tailored to the law school curriculum, provides an effective platform to structure values-based leadership education.
I counter the position taken by many that leadership can’t be taught. To the contrary, leadership can (and must) be taught. Leadership is not simply the result of some inherent characteristics or traits that blossom naturally. Rather effective leadership demands competencies that must be taught and developed. And as important, leadership education must not be unmoored from values — leaders without values may be effective, but they typically sow catastrophe. Thus, leadership education must engage comprehensively with discussions of values, and help students identify their own essential values, institutional values, societal values, and as important to distinguish real values from goals or outcomes. In short, not only can leadership be taught, but law school is the ideal place to teach it, especially if it is anchored firmly on a well-developed values framework.
To illuminate the discussion, I explore leadership scholarship, including some of the classic treatments, as well as the more current leadership theories. I draw especially on Deborah Rhode’s exploration of lawyers and leadership, and Barbara Kellerman’s work on bad leadership. Of particular relevance is the unifying theme of Kellerman’s book Bad Leadership: the intricate “webs of significance” that connect leaders and followers. I advance Kellerman’s idea that we must understand bad leaders and bad followers if we hope to come to grips with some of the worst failures of leadership and use these lessons to make a difference in the quality of leadership we hope to achieve.
I also survey the various types of leadership that scholars have described (transactional, intersectional, authoritarian), eventually focusing on the importance the formal and informal leaders — those who lead with designated authority, and those who lead with no formal authority beyond the fact that people follow. A crucial insight here is the fact that informal authority often asserts itself in the face of standing up to bad leadership (fulfilling the obligation of a follower to call out wrongdoing). This provides the key to how Giving Voice to Values dovetails with how we should be educating lawyer-leaders.
Then I explore leadership stories, beginning with the inspiring leaders, and focusing on stories of both formal and informal leaders. From there I turn to narratives of some recent high-profile scandals — Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, the sexual misconduct scandals — to dig into how bad leadership and bad followership worked together to create and prolong these embarrassing examples. Key lessons can be gleaned from these narratives, especially with respect to followership and the role of informal leadership. In each case of bad leadership, some of those involved simply saw nothing wrong with what was going on — they saw no disconnect between mission statements that promised truth and integrity and conduct that was everything but. Either they simply didn’t get it — they were blind to the wrongdoing, or they had rationalized what they saw, generally because of self-interest. Others did recognize the misconduct, but did not speak up. Still others tried to speak up but were unable to do so effectively or were ignored and sidelined. Exploring these examples, and the motivations (or lack thereof) sets the stage for how we must respond in cases of leaders behaving badly.
Against this background, I explain Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values approach, describing how it can be tailored to the law school curriculum. Gentile’s approach provides students with strategies designed to counter instinctive resistance. By studying the cognitive science that helps explain the reasons individuals make the decisions they do, and what makes them stick to those decisions, students develop an understanding of how to counter resistance. Gentile provides a range of strategies--a suite of responses that will help students effectively give voice to their values, selecting the strategies that best meet the situation, Gentile’s approach requires students to practice — to develop a sort of muscle memory that will serve them when in challenging circumstances they face value conflicts. Gentile argues that it is crucial not only to understand the available strategies, but also to practice them, anticipating situations and “mooting” responses. Gentile’s research indicates that individuals who are most successful in standing up for their values had the opportunity to do so early in life in low-risk circumstances, and her approach applies this research. Related to this, the approach encourages law students to begin building a reliable network of advisors. This group of advisors should be made up of peers and more senior mentors they can turn to for advice and with whom they can practice when a challenging situation arises. Giving Voice to Values provides an excellent scaffolding upon which to build a rigorous, value-based leadership curriculum.
Keywords: Leadership, Leaders, Ethics, Values, Moral Leadership, Legal Education
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation