GPSolo | Feature

The Leader’s Journey: Discovering the Leader Within

Artika R. Tyner

What is in your hands to make a difference in the world? I ask this question not only of myself but also of my law students. However, legal education and our profession, more generally, fail to raise this important question. This is a missed opportunity to connect our legal training and leadership skills with our moral responsibility to leave the world a better place than we found it.

Each and every day, we as lawyers have an opportunity to make a difference. Our training provides us with the tools to serve as lead problem solvers and agents of change. This is a call to leadership. When I refer to leadership, I am not referring to a position or title but instead to your ability to be a servant. A servant to society is one who uses legal training as a tool to create access to justice, eradicate inequities, and promote equal justice under the law. This is my vision of “leadership for social justice” where we as lawyers focus our time, talent, and resources on leading social change.

History has shown us that lawyers have been at the forefront of social change movements, whether it be Nelson Mandela (who fought to dismantle the racial caste system of apartheid), Mahatma Gandhi (who admonishes us to be the change we wish to see in the world), Marian Wright Edelman (who has committed her life’s work to standing up for children and ensuring that no child is left behind), or Charles Hamilton Houston (who warned “a lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society”). These lawyers serve as examples of how lawyers can use their influence to make a difference.

Redefining Leadership

Whether you are a law student, young lawyer, law partner, or sole practitioner, you can be a leader. Traditionally, leadership has been viewed as a position and identified by title. This definition inherently creates a hierarchy of power where the leader is positioned on top of the ladder above his or her subjects, giving orders.

Leadership is about leveraging your ability to influence people, organization cultures, and thought processes in order to achieve a collective vision. Emerging research has characterized leadership as a process of influence that moves beyond the constraints of positional or hierarchical leadership. Everyone has the capacity to lead because each person has a measure of influence. There is a continuum of influence. Some may have more influence than others, but the question is the same for everyone: How will you use your influence to leave the world a better place than you found it?

Leaders are “made” through experience and cultivation of one’s gifts and talents. Traditionally, the definition of leadership also has been limited to focus on leadership being endowed upon a few “great men” such as Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, and George Washington owing to their innate capacity to lead.

However, this leadership definition limits the true essence of leadership to an exercise of individual power and excludes the full participation of individuals from diverse backgrounds (e.g., gender, ethnicity/culture). Rather, leadership truly emerges through the exercise of influence and the development of core leadership competencies. This type of collective and participatory leadership approach will also aid in building a more inclusive legal community.

This brings us to the age-old debate of whether leaders are born or made. The notion of leaders being born follows the essence of a few “great men” wielding positional authority or leaders being born with innate leadership skills (“trait theory”). Past research classified leadership as 30 percent based on genetic traits perceived to align with the image of a “leader” and 70 percent based on lessons learned through experience. However, contemporary research has shown that through training and experience, you can develop the core competencies needed to become an effective leader. You can develop skills such as reflective listening, creative problem solving, cultural agility, and emotional intelligence. As you develop these skills, you will unveil the leader within.

Service and Leadership

In redefining leadership, we must also recognize that there is a moral imperative to serve. As lawyers, we are commissioned to serve and lead. Aristotle characterized lawyers as the very personification of justice. Furthermore, the preamble of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct reminds us of this responsibility: “As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.”

When redefining leadership, principles of “servant leadership” can serve as inspiration. According to Robert K. Greenleaf, who coined the term, “The servant leader is one who seeks to serve first, and this passion for service motivates one to lead.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. characterizes this as the “drum major instinct”—measuring greatness by one’s commitment to service. He stated, “by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” There are many opportunities around us to serve and make a difference.

Your ability to serve is not limited by the nature of your practice or years of experience. Service is not constrained, for instance, to the work of public interest lawyers but expands across the spectrum of all practice areas. As lawyers we can leverage our leadership skills to make an impact. The call to leadership actively compels us also to get involved in the community and leading social change:

  • End the access-to-justice gap. According to Legal Services Corporation (, 80 percent of the civil needs of poor people are not being met because of “chronically and grossly” underfunded legal services and pro bono programs. Volunteer and assist a pro bono client.
  • Make a difference in the life of a child. Support the Kids in Need of Defense project (KIND; by assisting an unaccompanied young person with legal services.
  • Aid in the representation of a servicemember. Join the ABA Military Pro Bono Project and Operation Stand-By ( to share your expertise with a military attorney representing a servicemember.
  • Help reform the criminal justice system. Participate in #FREEAMERICA (, the multiyear culture campaign seeking to advance policy reform in the criminal justice system.
  • Take action. Share how you will lead social change by joining my Leadership for Social Justice Project ( I challenged 10,000 leaders across the globe to unite to advance social justice.


Lawyers play an integral role in impacting what Dr. King described as the arc of the moral universe. Once again, this is a call to leadership for lawyers—a moral imperative to make a difference. President Barack Obama challenged each of us to play an active role in leading change when he stated, “the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it does not bend on its own.”

What is in your hands to make a difference in the world? Lawyers have the power in our hands to bend the arc of the moral universe toward liberty, justice, and freedom for all.

A New Definition of Leadership

Leadership Traditionally Defined

  • Leadership is a position.
  • Leadership is identified by a title.
  • Leadership creates a hierarchy of power.

Leadership Redefined

  • Leadership is about influence.
  • Leadership is identified by character and authenticity.
  • Leadership promotes collective power.



Ten Key Leadership Lessons


1. Serve others. The heart of the leader is manifested through service to others.

2. Always seek to learn. The leader is always learning new things and gaining new insights.

3. Seek justice. Make a commitment to serve the needs of the “least of these” and give voice to the voiceless.

4. Lead authentically. Be true to yourself—at the core of your leadership are your values and morals.

5. Be creative. Your only limitation is the limit of your imagination, so dream big.

6. Champion others. A leader helps others to reach their full leadership potential.

7. Listen to others. An effective leader is also an effective listener.

8. Engage in ongoing self-reflection. Self-reflection helps you gain new perspectives, foster connections, and develop self-awareness.

9. Chart a new course. The leader goes courageously into uncharted territories and creates a new path.

10. Tap into your power. Change requires action, and action is an exercise of your power.

Artika R. Tyner

Dr. Artika R. Tyner is a passionate educator, author, sought-after speaker, and advocate for justice. She currently serves as the associate vice president for diversity and inclusion at the University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is the author of The Lawyer as Leader: How to Plant People and Grow Justice (ABA, 2014) and The Leader’s Journey: A Guide to Discovering the Leader Within (ABA, 2015) (see Ready Resources for more).