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January 14, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 3

Take my advice: Bar leaders share what they’ve learned from unlikely sources

From TED Talks to podcasts to best-selling books, it isn’t hard to find advice specifically geared toward helping someone become a better leader. But meaningful, enduring pieces of wisdom sometimes come from very different sources, when someone isn’t actively seeking them out. Bar Leader recently asked a few bar presidents, chief staff executives, and other leaders for their favorite pieces of leadership advice from unlikely sources. Here’s what they had to say.

Larisa Dinsmoor, immediate past president, Orange County (Calif.) Bar Association: Pivot as needed.

In the 1985 movie Better Off Dead, John Cusack’s character is getting advice on how to ski down a K-12 mountain. The advice he receives from his friend as he stares down the steepest slope is simply “Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.” Being OCBA president in a pandemic was something like a K-12 I’ve never skied before. I didn’t really know how far our bar association could go, or how fast we could get there. I simply went in the direction that benefited our members and turned when necessary. At times it was fast, and it was scary, but we all got down the mountain together. Now, we have more connection, community and unity because of our journey.

Shannon Seiler Dartez, president, Lafayette (La.) Bar Association: No hearts in coolers.

Years ago, I chuckled when I heard Olympia Dukakis’ character gossip about how “they carry those organs in beer coolers!” in the movie Steel Magnolias. That movie has always been one of my favorites. Later in my leadership prep for another organization, I heard Vicki Clark, leadership consultant extraordinaire, speak about the urgency of matters, reminding us that we are not “carrying a heart in a beer cooler!” As a leader, when I’m feeling stress or pressure to make a quick decision about something that is not urgent but still important, I stop and remind myself that as bar president, I’m not carrying a heart in a beer cooler, and what someone else may see as urgent, perhaps truly is not, and that I can take the moment of reflection to make a good and sound decision on behalf of the organization and its members without rushing.

Stan Bissey, executive director and chief executive officer, Los Angeles County (Calif.) Bar Association: Take chances.

One of my favorite television shows, Frasier, was always good at reminding me to not take myself too seriously. One poignant line that has stayed with me all these years was from the character Martin, Frasier’s dad. During a moment of reflection, he shared, “It’s not the times I took a chance and failed that I regret, it’s the times I didn't even try.” I go back to that over and over when I’m unsure or hesitant.  So far, no regrets! 

Ann Morgan, president, State Bar of Nevada: Be a bar believer.

When I sat down to think about my response, How the Grinch Stole Christmas popped into my head. (That it was on TV that night had no influence whatsoever!) It is not the Grinch who is the resource, however. It is little Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two. She is the trusting Christmas believer, and that is what I have tried to be: a cheerleader always, for the profession, for the association, for our members, the judiciary and law students. It does not mean I am not diligently working on our initiatives to improve each of those categories, but it does mean that I do it with empathy, recognition and encouragement.

Joi Kush, president, Colorado Bar Association: No job is irrelevant.

I worked in the restaurant industry from high school to my first year as a licensed but legally unemployed lawyer. I always viewed my job as a financial necessity, but irrelevant to my larger goal of becoming a successful attorney and leader. However, as a restaurant manager, I learned how to multi-task, actively listen, and manage various personalities. Because of my restaurant experience, I delegate, trust, adapt, and always smile. The lessons I learned while working in the restaurant make me a better lawyer and leader.

Judge Linda Rekas Sloan, past president of the Rhode Island Bar Association and current chair of the bar’s Task Force on Diversity & Inclusion: Always set the bar high.

On The Office, Michael Scott, the manager, once said, “The only time I set the bar low is for limbo.” What this quote means to me is that as a bar leader, what you achieve depends on the bar you set for yourself, and this is entirely your own decision. If you only aim low, then you may have some success, but to reach your full potential, you should always set the bar high, just like Michael Scott!

Christina Crow, past president, Alabama State Bar: Know the power of yes and no.

I think the best piece of advice that I’ve ever gotten was from a friend when I was pregnant with my first child and was intended as parenting advice: “Say yes as often as you can but when you say no, mean it.” I use this in my parenting, my law practice, and certainly used it in bar leadership. I consider bar associations as service-oriented organizations. When I was preparing to become president of the Alabama State Bar, I had people approaching me with many ideas of what we could and should accomplish. I said yes to many of those ideas, and because of that, we improved the benefits to our members and to the public. A great example is that we created an association health insurance plan based on a suggestion of one commissioner. Before I said no to an idea, I sought input from multiple sources. Once I decided it was not a good project for the association under my leadership, I did not revisit or second guess that decision.

Chad Sarchio, president, D.C. Bar: Don’t be afraid of hard work.

“Of course it’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.” As a dedicated seamhead, I had to offer a baseball-themed source of leadership inspiration. This one comes from the fabulous movie A League of Their Own, spoken by one of America’s best actors, Tom Hanks. It captures how anything worth doing is worth working hard at, and how important it is for leaders not to buckle when the challenge is greatest. This quote from one of my favorite cinematic scenes inspires me to keep a stiff upper lip when writing the bar president’s column for Washington Lawyer or helping a team revising the bar’s by-laws, or hosting a bar meeting or conference with controversial topics up for discussion or a large, unfamiliar audience on hand. Because the moments that test bar leaders’ fortitude likely offer the best rewards.

Beverly M. Weber, past president, Association for Women Lawyers of Greater Kansas City: Make room to listen.

“Scarecrow: I haven't got a brain … only straw.
Dorothy: How can you talk if you haven't got a brain?
Scarecrow: I don't know … But some people without brains do an awful lot of talking … don't they?
Dorothy: Yes, I guess you're right.”

― L. Frank Baum, Wizard of Oz

A significant part of effective and thoughtful leadership is listening. This quote reminds me to listen to others and that leadership is often more about providing others the space to speak than speaking for others. It also reminds me that words matter—so use them wisely. This is particularly important as a leader but translates in most areas of life, personal or professional.  

Michelle Park Chiu, immediate past president, Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area: Just keep swimming.

I found sage advice for leading a bar association in 2021 from Dory in Finding Nemo, who tells her rather pessimistic and apprehensive friend Marlin to “Just keep swimming!” as they encounter several difficulties while trying to find his son, Nemo. 2021 was a year full of unexpected and unpredictable challenges for everyone, including our bar association. There were moments when we were not sure how to respond to some of these developments: Because these were new challenges, there was no playbook to follow. Rather than be paralyzed by inaction in the face of uncertainty, our bar association chose to “keep swimming,” by doing what we already knew how to do—developing programming that we believed would be helpful and inspiring for our members. I believe we are stronger for it, and this past year was a good reminder that sometimes just remembering to “keep swimming” will help you get to where you want to go. 

Dua M. Abudiab, executive director, King County (Wash.) Bar Association: Don’t let titles divide us.

“Your men love you. If I knew nothing else about you, that would be enough” – Prince Edward in the film A Knight’s Tale. In my current role, it took about two weeks for me to realize the great divide our titles create between team members, executive directors, and the board. It took three weeks to realize that calling team members “staff” only furthered that divide. It took one month to realize that simply being myself—embracing my humanity, being who I am every day with my team—is the best thing that I can do for them. Caring about the human being in front of you entirely changes how you engage with them and then, only then, can real change happen.

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