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September 26, 2023

From the Outgoing Chair

Brian Pappas

It was my honor to serve as Section chair. Looking back at my journey up the Section’s leadership ladder, I learned and grew so much. My first ABA section event was at the 2008 Spring Conference in Seattle. I knew no one there, and I remember wondering whether I belonged at a meeting with such accomplished thinkers. I never imagined I would be Section chair fifteen years later. Whether you realize it or not, you may be chair someday, and so this column describing the lessons I learned is dedicated to you.

All roles and perspectives are valuable.

It’s not about the Chair. As the chair, I tried to keep a healthy perspective regarding my ABA leadership obligations. In one year, it is not possible to leave a legacy or transform a section. The year begins quickly, and before you know it, you are at the mid-year meeting. Associations adapt and grow incrementally, just like their members, and my goal was always to be a responsible section steward. I learned from former chair Myra Selby that change for the sake of change is irresponsible. She taught me to be mindful and understand why you are taking the actions you are taking.   

Our staff are incredibly valuable colleagues and partners. They are an essential part of our team and the true section VIPs. I learned from former chair Harrie Samaras that staff are mentors, valuable counsel, and lifelong friends. I am so honored to have worked for years with accomplished staff leaders like Linda Warren Seely, Gina Brown, Jennifer Michel, Melissa Buckley, Matthew Conger, and many others. 

Leadership comes in all forms. You do not need to be an officer to make a difference. Indeed, I made an enormous impact as a committee cochair working with Mariana H.C. Gonstead. Along with our committee, and staff members Matthew Conger and Melissa Buckley, we worked as a team. We recruited new committee members and continuously brought varying perspectives into the committee. I am very proud that our section continues to make meaningful strides in supporting greater diversity in our section and in our field.  

Never stop learning

Embrace the unknown. When we think we “know,” there is less room for learning and growth. The more certain I am, the more I wonder what I am missing. I learned this most clearly from Ava Abramowitz, who taught me to be curious, to be open to new ideas and opportunities, and to cultivate humility, grace, and patience.   

Trust in the process and in those who came before you. The leadership ladder provides opportunities in stages to learn about different parts of “the elephant” that is the ABA. It takes time to see the full picture. So many committee chairs, institute leaders, and officers have preceded us. People like former chair Pam Enslen are generous and willing to provide a longer-term perspective. Their wisdom and experience are more valuable than you can imagine.   

Mistakes are gifts. It is easier to learn from mistakes than successes. Embrace failure and forgive yourself and others. I have made more than my share of mistakes. For me it is an iterative process of learning and improving, and then making new mistakes and improving some more. We are all here to grow and to help others grow. I always try to understand what happened, to be accountable, and to do what I can to make it right. I learned a lot from our former staff guru Gina Brown, who always showed me patience, understanding, and forgiveness.   

Engage positively

Take a risk now and then. Change is hard, and not everyone is ready to try something new. Often we do things a particular way simply because of history and tradition. I learned this from former chair Joan Stearns Johnsen. Joan had bold ideas, and she was not afraid to think big and challenge everyone to do the same. I learned that our principles are important, and they will guide us in the right direction.  

Collaboration is the key. The African Proverb is true: “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” Whether with other sections, other committees, or other ADR organizations, it is better to “go far” than to go quickly. Keep in mind the core concepts that define our field, and take time to listen to all perspectives and include them meaningfully in deliberations. I try to seek others’ opinions on everything as much as I can. If I am alone in my thinking, my thinking is likely wrong. I learned a lot about collaboration and kindness from former chair Jim Alfini.

Conflict can be a catalyst for better things. Conflict happens, even in a section of Dispute Resolution. While we are all in the conflict business, all of us have had moments we do not want to permanently define us. None of us really know what others are experiencing, and so forgiveness and grace are powerful tools for navigating conflict. I find it is better to take time to reflect before responding in a difficult situation. I learned so much watching former chair Nancy Welsh, who lives what she teaches.

Stay present and enjoy every moment

Service and engagement are fun. Whatever the issue, former chair Ben Davis was so good at making the work fun. Ben cares deeply about both justice and about sharing ideas, but always with a wonderful spirit of collegiality.

ABA leaders are passionate. I did not stay involved with the ABA so I could hold a title, but because I like surrounding myself with great people who are passionate about working to improve our field. Former chair David Larson epitomizes this passion as he stepped in as chair-elect and had to learn a lot in a short period of time. He has done so much for our section and our field. 

The future is bright. I have been so fortunate to learn from the chairs who came before me. But I am even more excited for the chairs rising up the ladder. Our next chair, Ana Sambold, is a lightning bolt of energy and expertise who creates community wherever she goes. With Jennifer Michel as our director and Ana as our chair, the future could not be brighter.

Final thoughts

All of the people I mentioned could provide a far better rundown of “leadership” advice than I can. Due to space limitations, I am not able to mention everyone, but you know who you are. I was simply fortunate enough to learn from all of them and from all of you. Thank you.  

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