September 01, 2016 GPSolo | Feature

What Is a Leader?

James M. Durant III

Come with me and let’s take a brief look into the art of influencing behavior, or, simply put, leadership. Let’s look at the leader—and at the elements essential to leadership.

Accountability, compassion, fortitude, and good character are indispensable attributes of a leader. A leader assumes accountability for his or her actions and does not cower in the face of fire. A leader is also compassionate toward others. A leader must exercise the greatest degree of compassion for others, and at times this means putting the needs of others ahead of the leader’s own needs. This singular aspirational goal is the core element of service, which is the keystone of achievement; a leader who achieves has the internal fortitude to push limits for accomplishment no matter what obstacles may fall in his or her way. In this regard I am reminded of South African President Nelson Mandela. Here is a leader of great fortitude who liberated his nation by patient and passive resistance with articulated team planning. And what about a leader’s character? A leader must exude and display good character at all times. A 15-second departure from good character could color a leader of otherwise high character in a way that is not recoverable. What one does when no one is looking defines character; what one does when under pressure is equally definitive of character. Examples of bad character are abundant, but a leader must exercise good character when it is required and also when it is not. This is a basic expectation.

More than any other qualities, however, vision, perseverance, and uplift are the elements most essential to leadership.


A leader must be able to look beyond the current situation and over the horizon; leaders who constantly study their environment are better suited to make an informed decision. Being prepared for this special calling requires great scholarship and study. Leaders mold society and influence human behavior, but this does not take place in a vacuum. The leader in this regard pulls upon academic pursuits and experiential learning. Take, for example, a few great philosophers: David Hume, Plato, Socrates, Henry David Thoreau, and, of course, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. These leaders engaged in phenomenal mental debate and led societal change for the betterment of people across the globe. The knowledgeable leader should aspire to engage in the same type of mental debates, the same questioning of contemporary society that Socrates, Gandhi, King, and these others engaged in. They critically studied, analyzed, and moderated the human experience or endeavor for positive growth and achievement across global political subdivisions. Moreover, their environmental evaluation transcended superficial physiological differences among mankind. They studied the issue first before taking action. Dr. Benjamin Mays, former president of Morehouse College, once said to his students such as King and Ambassador George W. B. Haley, “You must first get your minds straight before you can act.” This demonstration of scholarship fostered an environment upon which these leaders engaged in molding behavior.


A leader must exercise the greatest degree of perseverance. Self-fortitude, hope, and faith will foster an internal mental environment upon which leaders persevere to see the goal achieved, regardless of the obstacles. A leader sees the common goal joining separate paths—analogous to the intersection of three adjoining walls—and leads others to stay on target. We all have been in situations where we wanted simply to stop; this is understandable when acting alone. But leaders cannot simply stop; others depend on them to persevere. Always cautious, leaders must know their breaking point and must respect their abilities.


Finally, leaders uplift others. The true measure of oneself is a factor of what one does for others. In 2008 my oldest son, five at the time, asked, “Dad, what do you do as a judge advocate [Air Force lawyer]?” I thought about all the tasks I did as a judge advocate—drafting wills, working marriage dissolutions, defending and filing personal injury cases, prosecuting accused persons, performing judicial functions, etc. Knowing that he might not understand the gravity of these tasks, I simply told him that I helped others. In 2008, when the economy was taking the leap downward to the Great Recession, and when America was in the middle of several conflicts or military operations, I was elected to the leadership ladder of the ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division, where I would eventually become Chair. Part of my duties included creating a vision or theme for my year as Chair. When I critically thought of what we do as lawyers, I decided to theme the year after what I told my oldest son: “Service to Others.”

In the GPSolo Division and other entities I have been privileged to lead, I have been fortunate to be part of something greater than myself, something that uplifted those in need. Whether I was helping to provide academic scholarships, to build a library in a juvenile facility, or to refurbish a senior citizens home in South Philly, I was proud to be part of a professional organization that did something for others. During my year as Chair of the GPSolo Division, we created a web-based portal that would enable lawyers to better practice law and to conduct critical research conveniently and at no cost. This we envisioned would facilitate a cost savings to be passed on to clients. We understood the need to make sure that American citizens had good access to justice during tough economic times. Demonstrating uplift is service to others. When we serve others, we enhance ourselves because we are all connected in the human experience. Uplift is infinite and, for me, an everyday focal point. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “What is life worth living if you cannot improve upon it for others to come.” I truly believe that it is inherent in us as humans constantly to strive and aspire to uplift our society.

This brief description of a leader is not exhaustive, and leadership is not static. It is fluid and situationally dependent. Moreover, as you can see, leaders are indeed dynamic and possess skill sets that are universal. Leaders essentially influence others to accomplish goals and objectives; it is this influencing behavior that sets apart natural leaders from those who are merely appointed to lead.

James M. Durant III

James M. Durant III, Colonel, USAF Ret., is chief counsel, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Chicago Office. He is a past Chair of the ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. The views and opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect policies of the U.S. Department of Energy.