September 01, 2016

Developing Leadership Skills

Sarah Weddington

I wish I were having the opportunity to sit down and visit with you instead of picturing you in my mind’s eye as I write. I’d love to hear your law-related stories and about your work as a lawyer and a leader. Being a lawyer for me has been a special honor and a rich storehouse of leadership experiences for which I’m grateful.

As I entered my office this morning, the memorabilia displayed reminded me of all the ways in which being a lawyer has enhanced my life. For example, as I glance over my computer, I see the framed handmade goose quill pen hung in the entryway. When one argues before the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, such a pen is waiting at your place in the courtroom. After I prevailed in Roe v. Wade, a case I took on a pro bono basis, I wrote to the Court and requested the signature of each Justice involved in that decision. Each (both those in the majority and those who dissented) was gracious enough to sign a copy of the decision issued on January 22, 1973.

While briefing Roe and preparing for its two arguments, I was pressed by various friends and colleagues to run for the Texas legislature. I had been a clerk-typist for the Texas House of Representatives during a session of the legislature; there was an open seat from Austin/Travis County in the election coming up. My key credential was that I was a lawyer, the traditional pathway for people to be elected as a member of the Texas House. Also, there were a number of important issues affecting women that would be before the legislature, and no woman from Austin/Travis County had ever been elected. Statewide, five women were elected that year, the most ever, including me (as a Democrat) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (as a Republican), who was elected from Houston and whom I knew from law school. Now each of us has a designated place in Texas history for all that we did prior to and following our election to the legislature.

As my three terms in the legislature were ending, I received a call from Washington, D.C. Jimmy Carter of Georgia had been elected president, and he had appointed John C. White, the Texas commissioner of agriculture, to be deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Once again, my legal credentials were the key to a new opportunity. At a cabinet meeting, President Carter requested that his top cabinet officials be sure to include at least one woman in a top position in each department. No woman had yet been appointed at Agriculture, and White suggested me for the position of general counsel. I had a special interest in USDA issues, successfully went through Senate confirmation, and started my work with more than 200 very professional USDA attorneys.

During my term with USDA I was particularly involved with implementation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. We needed to check the rivers in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana to determine which structures along the rivers were in good shape and which were in abysmal shape and should be allowed to degrade, with the ultimate goal Congress established that there be no structures to interfere with people “riding the river” to experience nature at its best. Luckily, I was comfortable riding a horse for a week, and I thoroughly enjoyed the company of some of the forest rangers and some of the attorneys in the appropriate USDA division. I learned so much from them on that trip. It was cold and raining one day, but I still was happy riding in the wilderness area and eating by firelight. An added plus was that the rangers were wonderful storytellers, recounting the stories of the bear who broke into cabins, the bear who got away, and many other subjects.

As is said, “All good things must end.” But a call from the White House offered a different “good thing.” The caller said that President Carter wanted me to come and work for him at the White House. Soon my title was Assistant to the President of the United States of America, and I was flying Air Force One with the president, working with foreign dignitaries from President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to the sultan of Oman, visiting with a variety of well-known U.S. individuals, and planning and executing all types of events at the White House featuring President Carter. The last Christmas season that Carter was president, he invited me to have my parents and my siblings spend the holidays at Camp David; my family was delighted by the visit. He and Rosalynn are very thoughtful people. I won’t try to enumerate all of the experiences that my White House work entailed. I’ll simply comment that such ended when Carter lost the election for a second term.

Then I became a professor at Texas Woman’s University in Denton and The University of Texas (UT) at Austin. I loved working with the most outstanding students (most of whom had to apply to get into my class) who were interested in going into law and/or learning leadership skills. I dedicated much of my time to helping prepare them for law school both in the classroom and by opening doors and making introductions. I wanted to provide the help that others had given to me when I was starting my legal career as well as the help and advice that I wish I had received.

In the past I often have spoken on “laughter, learning, and leadership.” I do believe that humor is an inherent component of being an outstanding leader. For example, as I think of prior U.S. presidents and their humor skills, I believe that Ronald Reagan was the best. Most Americans “of a certain age” remember when Reagan was shot and was rushed to a D.C. hospital. Before he went into surgery, he told the surgeons in the operating room, “Please tell me you’re Republicans.” His use of humor went a long way in comforting anxious Americans who were worried about their president’s future health.

Through the years, speakers have reminded me of great lines used by others. For example, George Burns in a speech once commented about the challenges of aging. As he was concluding, he said, “Now at age 95, I can do anything that I did when I was 18. It just goes to show how pathetic I was when I was 18.” Another memorable line is one from Bob Hope. He was once the speaker at a college graduation ceremony, and, after commenting about some of the challenges the graduates would face, he concluded with some words of wisdom: “The world is out there waiting for you. Don’t go.” To me, the world does seem more and more challenging for today’s graduates. Whenever I listen to a speaker, I always have a pad and a pen ready to record ideas and quotes that seem worthy of using myself in the future.

I am always trying to learn from other people. I do that primarily by what I call “the use of the critical eye.” For example, when I first started speaking, I tended to speak too fast, especially as I was nearing the end of a speech. Then I had an opportunity to listen “with a critical eye” to Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (who, by the way, is buried only a few rows from my future burial space in the Texas State Cemetery). She was a marvelous speaker. As I remember, she slowed down toward the end of her speech. She said, “The Constitution. [She paused.] The Constitution is a document that guarantees equality. [Pause.] The Constitution is a document that guarantees equality for you and for me.” She ended to applause and cheers. From then on I copied some of her ways.

In addition to Congresswoman Jordan, I think of a number of other lawyers I learned from. For example, former ABA President Edward L. Wright of Little Rock, Arkansas, is the person from whom I learned human relations and a great deal about how to tell stories. My first job following law school was as the clerk to a special committee of the ABA constituted by President Wright to revise the Ethical Standards for Lawyers. I was by far the youngest and the least experienced of the committee members, each of whom was a well-respected and well-known lawyer. I remember one particular occasion when I approached the group, which was in a circle listening to Ed tell a story about one of his trials. Ed interrupted his story to turn to me and say, “Now, Sarah, you haven’t yet tried a case like this, but in the future you will . . .” before continuing his story. Just by saying my name, he made me feel included in the group. I have long patterned my human relations skills after the way that Ed Wright conducted himself.

Those skills were ones that undergirded my work as I became a leader. Below are some others.

Course corrections. At New Year, most people want to get everything “all straightened out.” But when a patient’s EEG or EKG reading straightens out, the patient is in big trouble. With leadership, we try to find the right course, but we must always be open to course corrections. I heard a speaker talk about the skill of a missile to screen out clutter, and that we as leaders must also be able to screen out clutter and to concentrate on the most important items to accomplish. Another principle I like is that a leader must learn to compromise in time, but never in direction.

Practice. It is important to practice. Before arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court, I participated in a number of moot court sessions. These sessions were among my most important opportunities to practice. I had long practiced leadership. I was the drum major for the Canyon, Texas, Junior High band. I was the president of the Future Homemakers of America of Canyon High School. I was elected to be the secretary of the McMurry College student body in Abilene, Texas. I was elected to be the secretary of my law class at The University of Texas School of Law. In college I participated in many speaking contests, including poetry reading, debate, and many other interscholastic league events. (In fact, after it became public that I had prevailed in a case before the Supreme Court, my high school speech teacher called me and said, “Congratulations, Sarah. We’ve won again!”) A part of my preparation for oral argument was being involved in a variety of speaking contests and the action of running for office.

Visibility. Seminars to teach lawyers how to bring in clients often have a major section that teaches visibility. Relevant sayings include, “He who tooteth not his own horn, his horn goeth untooted.” Another is, “It’s not who you know, it’s who knows that you know.”

Principles. “Don’t work harder, work smarter.” Protect your integrity: “Who you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear your words.” Have a life plan: What can I do today to give myself more options for tomorrow?

Learning about leadership is a lifelong endeavor. One former student recently suggested that I read Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat, the story of the young men from the University of Washington who crewed the boat that won the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Their coach taught them that it wasn’t important for an individual to row to an excellent standard; it was imperative for all the members of the crew to row as a team and to an excellent standard. I’m now reading Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, a book suggested to me by a young California lawyer, Daniel Alexander. The cover says, “How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”; I’m finding the ideas in it useful.

Helping to teach others how to lead is one of the joys of my life. Dilen Kumar is a former student who is now a lawyer with Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in the Dallas office. He called one day and said that given the slowdown in the economy at the time, the firm had offered him a stipend if he could find something interesting to do for a year before starting. I offered to help and opened some doors as I’ve done for many of my former students. His skills and credentials opened for him a position in the White House Counsel’s office and allowed him to become one of the small group from that office in charge of navigating Elena Kagan’s confirmation as a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Last year Texas Lawyer magazine opened nominations for an award for “extraordinary minorities in Texas law.” I wanted to help Dilen receive that award; I wrote a letter in support of his nomination. He was selected, and that caused him to be more widely known to lawyers from across a wide range of offices with Weil. I believe that will give him more options and opportunities in his legal career. He has been a leader since his university days, and he is a delightful person.

Another of my former students, Christina Melton Crain, a woman lawyer now in Dallas, has created a new nonprofit endeavor called Unlocking DOORS to offer opportunities for the formerly incarcerated; she also practices law. She is an amazing person and a leader that I’m very proud of.

These are but two of the people I’ve worked with who are contributing as leaders and lawyers in meaningful ways. Here’s to them and to those of you reading these words. Here’s to the leadership you are exhibiting through the community work that you are performing, and to the ways in which you will continue to enhance this noble profession that we are privileged to be a part of!

Sarah Weddington

Dr. Sarah Weddington is a nationally known attorney and spokesperson on leadership and public issues, particularly those affecting women. She has been a legislator, presidential advisor, and professor, and she writes and travels extensively.