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Vol. 30, No. 4

An opportunity for real leadership

by David S. Houghton

What is leadership today? Like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous observation about another subject, it is likely something that is not easily defined but that is better known by observation and experience. Great leaders and highly qualified commentators have examined the subject. Thus, I raise it only with great trepidation. While I am certain you have grappled with the concept of leadership, I invite you to consider it again with me for a few minutes.

Let me offer this view of leadership: Leadership is the ability to see opportunity, the courage to take action, and the integrity to take personal responsibility for seizing the opportunity. This definition has worked for me in a variety of contexts.

A fellow lawyer (who is now a judge) was playing golf with a group of us on an outing during our state bar meeting. He was driving to his ball, and I saw him veer away from the most direct path to the ball to reach out of the cart and pick up a piece of paper blowing across the fairway.

I watched this “one-person cleanup crew” repeat this activity three or four times during the round. He never said a word, but his actions spoke loudly. He saw an opportunity to do a simple task, and he took personal responsibility for making a small but important difference. That day, he made me and, undoubtedly, others who were in our group, part-time gardeners while we play golf.

You can also watch bar leaders faced with unexpected crises. Sometimes, it has been a natural disaster; sometimes, a man-made crisis. In each instance, bar leaders saw an opportunity to mobilize lawyers to meet a specific need. Lawyers responded, and people in their communities were served. It has been repeated time and again, most recently by lawyers and bar associations who have responded to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Whether giving money, time, experience, expertise, or support, lawyers see the opportunity to serve and take personal responsibility for making a difference.

Bar leaders (both volunteers and professional staff) also step out with courage to take on issues that are more insidious in our society. For example, the Minnesota State Bar Association, like most bar associations, grew weary of the lack of progress in diversity within our profession. The MSBA decided to fund the attendance of leaders of Minnesota’s minority bars at meetings of the National Conference of Bar Presidents.

That program has done a great deal to assist bar leaders of color and to assist the development of diversity within the bar. Quietly, without fanfare, Minnesota lawyers have committed to doing something to create genuine and essential diversity in our profession. Way to go, Minnesota!

Advancing diversity in our society is a huge opportunity for our profession.

Having the courage to take action is a part of our profession’s heart.

I invite you to take stock, and no matter what you, your firm, your company, or your bar are currently doing, do something more. No more studies, no more symposiums without action. Rather, I invite you to take personal responsibility for being in a position to see the opportunity to do something that will make a difference. Remember, even small acts gain attention and impact people who observe them. By doing something today, you will enhance the development of a diverse profession and a justice system that represents our entire population.

Copy Minnesota’s scholarship program. Find another program that you can tailor to your bar association or your firm. Implement a brand-new program that other bar associations can copy next year. But start today.

Possessing the integrity to take personal responsibility for this opportunity is what separates leaders from observers.

Be the leader you want to be. Please.


David S. Houghton is chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services.