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June 01, 2017

Mentoring: Principles for Mentoring in the Current Environment

Jeh Charles Johnson

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Today I speak to you, not as the former secretary of Homeland Security, but as a fellow member of the bar, and as a concerned private citizen.

My remarks should not be a construed as political. That would be inappropriate for this convention. My hope is that all lawyers and all Americans of any political persuasion agree, or can be persuaded to agree, with what I am about to say.

The administration in which I served was hardly perfect; we made our share of mistakes and had our share of leaks and setbacks. But, like many Americans, I watch with growing alarm and despair as the American presidency now degenerates into a reality TV show. We watch as the standards of behavior of our political leaders spirals downward. I need not chronicle in detail for you all problems. There are plenty of reporters, journalists, talking heads, and commentators doing a fine job of that right now.

This may be good for ratings, but it is bad for the welfare of the country.

Equally as depressing, this may be what the American people have come to expect of their political leadership. We watch as this new standard of behavior trickles down in American politics. A candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives can now criminally assault a reporter one day and get elected the next.

I have great admiration and respect for the president’s new chief of staff, my friend John Kelly. He is a four-star Marine and a patriot. People say that the job he and I both once occupied is the most difficult one in Washington. That’s not true. It may rank in the top five. White House chief of staff is the most difficult job in Washington. But if there is a difficult job to do, John will be the first to volunteer for it. It runs in the Kelly family. The cover of this week’s Time magazine labels John “Trump’s Last Best Hope.” I hope John succeeds, and is given the latitude to succeed, in bringing order and stability to this White House.

But what I’m talking about today is bigger than John Kelly.

In 1978 I had the great experience as a college intern of working for a brilliant and scholarly man, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Senator Moynihan once wrote about “defining deviancy down,” a permanent reset in which intolerable behavior becomes tolerable.

When it comes to the downward spiral in standards of behavior among our political leaders, we must pray this is not the new normal. I fear that it is.

What do we do? What can we in this room, as leaders of a great profession, do? What must we do?

In the face of this national spectacle, those of us who are the leaders of other professions of American life—in our case the legal profession—to include also business, education, journalism, healthcare, and the military—we must take care that a similar downward spiral in standards does not happen to us. We must insist that this does not happen.

Young people in all these professions are watching.

In this, our biggest challenge is the sheer hypocrisy. We must explain to our young apprentices that, somehow, what is acceptable for our national political leaders is not acceptable for you.   

If a second-year male associate at Paul Weiss had directed to a courtroom adversary the same things our president has said publicly about women, he would and should be fired before he got back to the office. None of us needs to spend much time thinking about what we would do with an associate who made public comments about the ethnic heritage of a judge in a case we are handling for one of our clients.

In today’s environment, we must rededicate ourselves to the following principles, for those we train and mentor.

First, our word is our bond. We must not give our word unless we know we can deliver on that which we have promised. Adherence to a promise breeds trust and respect, and trust and respect are everything.

Second, there should be no compromise in our demands for truth and accuracy. There are no “false facts” or “alternative facts.” These phrases are non-sequiturs, and cannot be allowed to settle into our vocabulary.

Third, as we watch so many in government make illegal, unauthorized disclosures of classified and sensitive information, we must remind new lawyers about the sanctity of privileged information and client confidences, and the serious consequences for those who make unauthorized disclosures of these things.

Fourth, and at all times, let us rededicate ourselves to treating others with respect. Treat others—superiors and subordinates—as you would be treated. Never forget what it was like to be the new kid in the office, and how you were treated. Recall those who took the time to mentor you and treat you with courtesy and patience, and, on the other hand, those others who took the opportunity to put you down to build themselves up.

Include others in your decision-making. Make no major decision without consulting your subordinates. This leads to better, more sustainable decisions. Bob Gates taught me that even those who disagree with a decision will respect and follow it if they feel they’ve been heard.

Good leadership involves loyalty, and loyalty is a two-way street. Loyalty is earned, not extracted as a condition for a job or from fear of losing one. Loyalty derives from the content of one’s character, not the place on an org chart. A good leader knows that he too is part of a team, and that constant references to “I,” “me,” and “my” devalue the contributions of other members of the team.

A good leader knows that the most outstanding performance is inspired, not extracted by fear.  

Tolerate and celebrate the diversity of this Nation. Respect and learn from our differences. Intolerance of those who are different reflects a narrow mind and a small heart.

Finally, as I said many times in public life, those who know history learn from it; those who don’t know the mistakes of history are bound to repeat them.

Those who know history know that a boat full of leaks is bound to sink.

Those who know history know that presidential over-reach is met with an equal and opposite reaction from the legislative and judicial branches of government.

Those who know history know that a president who attempts to interfere in a criminal investigation and fires a special prosecutor is on a path to impeachment.

Those who know history know that it is possible to miscalculate and stumble into war.

Those who know history know that our country is great and never stopped being great.

As I said at the outset this is not a political statement, nor was it intended to be. I apologize to those who might hear it that way. It is a statement motivated solely by love of public service, our profession, and our country.

I hope you feel the same way. Thank you.

Jeh Charles Johnson

The author, who served as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, offered these extemporaneous, preliminary remarks at the ABA Section of Litigation “Passing of the Gavel” Luncheon in New York City, August 11, 2017.