January 01, 2012

Views From The Chair: Leading By Example: The View From History

Irma S. Russell

Two books I recently read provide fascinating historical accounts of the development of the ethic of conservation and preservation. They also provide striking insights into leadership and mentoring.

In The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, Timothy Egan tells the story of the Great Fire of 1910, which burned three million acres in Montana and Idaho in only two days. Rangers of the fledging Forest Service led 10,000 fire fighters in responding to the fire, putting their lives and health at risk. The Forest Service, which had been in existence only five years, was under attack from critics who called for abolishment of the agency as an unjustified expenditure of taxpayer money. The valiant efforts of rangers in fighting the Great Fire changed public opinion about the Forest Service and the Service survived. Today approximately 30,000 Forest Service employees and many conservationists and other professionals work to protect and manage forests.

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard chronicles Roosevelt’s 1913 trip down an unexplored South American river shortly after his defeat in his third run for the presidency. The uncharted 600-mile waterway in the heart of the Amazon presented a perilous trip. It resulted in the death of three of the exploration party and tested Roosevelt’s commitment to “the strenuous life” and his own code of conduct. Faced with endless portaging of gear, near-starvation, bouts with malaria, and a life-threatening infection, Roosevelt refused special treatment and undertook the journey on the same terms as the others. The trip literally put the river “on the map.”

Both books stress the values of leadership and mentoring. Egan’s book focuses on the role Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, played in the rise of an ethic of conservation and inspiring a growing cohort of conservationists. A contemporaneous report in the New York Times stated that Pinchot’s followers showed their loyalty to him “by the most faithful and loyal service that Uncle Sam gets from any of his employees.” Pinchot’s dedication to land conservation inspired the young men who signed up as rangers. One of The Big Burn’s messages is that Pinchot’s leadership served future generations by inspiring future leaders. Millard’s book describes how on Roosevelt’s journey on the River of Doubt, he worked as hard as the much younger men who traveled with him, refusing any suggestion of the “camping with royalty” approach to exploration. After one of the boatmen murdered another, Roosevelt rose from his sick bed to protect the next intended victim. When detractors challenged the mapping produced by the expedition, Roosevelt was determined to address all criticisms through presentations to groups around the country. In the end, he accomplished this task, despite significant personal cost.

These books invite reflection on mentoring as well as on history. Mentors play an important role in all fields. Because the legal profession is central to a free society and the rule of law, the importance of mentoring future lawyers can hardly be overstated. Many Section members already serve as mentors to associates in their firms and to law students. Given the importance of mentoring, the Section is working to recruit mentors for young lawyer and law student members.

In a future Trends column, I will share tips from members on serving as effective mentors and describe Section programs that include mentoring opportunities. Please e-mail me to share your ideas about ways that lawyers and the Section can provide effective mentoring.

Irma S. Russell

Irma S. Russell is dean and professor at the University of Montana School of Law.