Leadership Lessons from the Eternal RBG
It was my final year in law school, and I was struggling with how to connect my passions to my profession.
But third year started giving me clues. Meeting Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped me discover my path.
One spring day, then-Judge Ginsburg accompanied the great Justice William Brennan to my class on Gender and the Law at Georgetown. The dozen of us students, normally intense and talkative, disappeared into the background.
Justice Brennan, Judge Ginsburg and our professor, a prominent gender rights lawyer whose friendships dated back to the ‘70s, comfortably settled into sharing stories of the fight for equality. We all recognized that their work had made our very presence in that room, and our future careers, possible.
The following year, Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court. But on that day I met her, she was already a giant that had forever changed the way gender was viewed in our country.
Here are five insights about her life that I find personally meaningful. I hope they inspire you when you think about leadership in your career and life:
Frequently, the world may not appear as we want it to be. The young Ginsburg knew that enduring change happens “one step at a time". She was thoughtful, incisive, and strategic in how she went about leading changes in the law that would benefit all Americans. Though she is rightly famous for opening doors for women, she carefully picked her first Supreme Court cases — often representing men who had been denied benefits based on their sex. Her “brick upon brick” strategy ultimately convinced the justices how the legal system, then based on fixed gender stereotypes, was harmful to everyone.
Male allies were critical to RBG’s success. After graduating law school at the top of her class, she had difficulty finding a job until a favorite Columbia law professor put her name forward for the highly prized annual clerkship. He refused the judge’s request to nominate a male student, and said the school would never nominate another student in the future if the judge did not give Ruth a chance.
She had an equal partnership with her husband, beloved Georgetown Law professor Marty Ginsburg, and credits him with enabling her success. One of my favorite stories from a classmate: “Martin Ginsburg was my tax law professor. One day, after I'd missed several classes due to a very sick infant and wife, I apologized to him. He waved me off - "There are more important things than law school," he said. "My wife taught me that." He added with a grin, "I married up."
A renowned opera lover, she believed “the arts make life beautiful.” Also a theater lover, she appeared onstage at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC many times. (One of my favorite stories is when she requested to play the part of the butcher in Henry VI, just so she could utter the famous line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” To which she ad-libbed, “Then the reporters.”)
Democracy is about seeking to understand. Though polar opposites on many foundational issues that came before the court (in opinions, their pens often did the work of daggers, figuratively jabbing at each other), RBG and Justice Antonin Scalia spent many a New Year’s Eve dinner together with their families. They clashed on issues of law and politics, but they loved and respected each other dearly as friends.
Leadership is a set of skills and a fine balance of what we want to achieve and what we have at hand. As we’ve discussed here recently, it’s not possible to always agree. Debating vigorously, voting, and then moving forward together (especially when you don’t get your way) is how you become a better leader, create a better culture and sustain a thriving organization.
Many leaders and companies fail to cultivate the skills and environment that enable a safe and productive space for the tough discussions. But successful leaders know that those hard discussions save companies, create relationships of belonging and loyalty, and enable deeper personal satisfaction and success.
Some of the greatest challenges for leaders are those moments when they have to deliver bad news. These days, many of my clients are bringing difficult issues to their CEOs and boards. I wrote about how to successfully meet this challenge in my recent Fast Company article. As my clients have learned, there is a method for doing this successfully without expending precious political capital.
As RBG said, "Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you."
Until next time, stay healthy and strong.
All my best,
P.S. If you’re looking for an opportunity to engage in meaningful service, I have one recommendation for you: We need more volunteers at the polls this year due to a desperate shortage caused by COVID-19.
A friend of mine has helped to create a nationwide nonpartisan effort to make it easy for you to volunteer. If you’re interested, please go to Votunteer.org. They will make it easy to help at your local voting precinct.