January 01, 2015

The Judge as Servant-Leader

By Judge Samuel A. Thumma and Sarah Beene

There are as many approaches to leadership as there are people. Leadership styles range widely, from dictatorial to collaborative, autocratic to autonomous, micro-managing to laissez faire, hierarchical to co-equal. Leadership styles are also extremely context-dependent. An athletic coach, for example, will use a different approach when speaking to the team just before a big game, dealing with two players competing for the same position, motivating a talented but underperforming player, and meeting with a team member one-on-one about a career-ending injury.

Deciding which leadership approach is most appropriate also depends on a wide variety of other factors. What personalities are involved? What are the organizational structure and culture? What are the time and other constraints? What is the history of those involved, both independently and with each other? What are the individual and common goals (and do those coincide or conflict)?

For judges, leadership approaches can be viewed in two very different contexts: (1) on the bench and (2) everything else (e.g., outside of the courtroom). On the bench, the judge clearly and properly controls the discussion and has the last word. But what about the judge’s leadership approach outside of the courtroom? Determining what leadership approach is best for a judge outside of the courtroom depends heavily on context, taking into account things such as the personalities involved, the organizational structure and culture, time and other constraints, the history of the individuals and organizations involved, and an assessment of both individual and common goals. For example, will a leadership approach that works well for a bench meeting of peer judges work equally well in a meeting of non-judge court personnel in addressing a human resource issue? How about when a judge serves on an internal study group involving court personnel who are supervised by the judge or his or her peer judges? Or when tackling an issue where the brunt of any change will be felt most acutely by court employees who are not judges? Or when addressing an issue, such as technology, where the judge lacks firsthand knowledge or experience of what can and cannot work?

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