Sandra Day O’Connor’s lessons in leadership

Staff Columnist

By Evan Thomas, The Wall Street Journal (Saturday/Sunday, March 9  10, 2019)

In her 25 years on the Supreme Court, the Justice demonstrated the power of civility and determination.

“Before voting on cases in their weekly conference, the nine justices of the Supreme Court shake hands.  At her first conference, in October 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Court, offered her hand to Justice Byron ‘Whizzer’ White.  The former All-Pro halfback squeezed it so hard that tears ‘squirted from her eyes’, she later recalled.  But O’Connor was never intimidated by White.  She knew that her fellow justice, easily bored and hypercompetitive, liked to putt golf balls on the rug in his chambers, so when she wanted to win his vote, she would wander down the hall to challenge him to a putting contest.

In her nearly 25 years as a justice (1981 to 2006) O’Connor was the most important vote on the U.S. Supreme Court.  She didn’t like the term ‘swing vote,’ because it implied fickleness, but she was well aware that she held the balance of power.  Instinctively attuned to the popular mood , she was seldom in the minority.  By the 1990s, legal experts were talking about the ‘O’Connor Court.’

How she accomplished this offers important lessons for anyone, male or female, who wants to lead.  In an age when people often try to get the upper hand through boasting or belligerence, O’Connor showed there is a better way.  Here are five rules she lived by.

Listen. O’Connor’s law clerks and her friends noticed something about her body language.  She took time to listen, and as she listened she would become almost unnaturally still.  Her bright , penetrating hazel  eyes would focus intently.  She conveyed that her whole being was paying attention, because it was.  On Saturdays, O’Connor would make lunch    usually a hearty Mexican dish  – for her four law clerks and then engage them to debate the cases coming before the Court that week.  She absorbed the give and take, rarely tipping her own hand,

Give a Little.  O’Connor was intensely pragmatic.  She tried not to take herself too seriously.

Walk away from stupid fights…O’Connor liked to laugh at ribald jokes and and to dance, and she wasn’t afraid to shed tears    but never over a personal slight.  As a woman in the Arizona state legislature in the late 1960s and early ‘70s she needed a thick skin.  ‘Sexual  harassment was the order of the day,’ recalled one lobbyist.  But she handled leering  lawmakers with aplumb, occasionally with what her friends called ‘the look’, a no-nonesense , don’t –mess-with-me flashing of the eyes and tightening of the mouth.

Decide and be firm. ‘An un-feminist feminist’ is how one O’Connor law clerk described her.  O’Connor wasn’t an overt activist on the model of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  But as a jurist, she forcefully stuck up for woman’s rights.  When one of her law clerks argued against having the Court accept a case involving job discrimination against woman lawyers, O’Connor exclaimed that of course the Court should take the case:  ‘It affects thousands of women lawyers trying to make partner.’  ‘It’s good to be first’, O’Connor liked to say, ‘but you don’t want to be the last.

Be grateful and show it. O’Connor had no place for bitterness or resentment.  She liked to tell the story of when she graduated near the top of her class at Stanford Law School in 1952, she couldn’t find a single private law firm in California willing even to interview a woman for a job.  But she was grateful , she said because this initial setback caused her to look for work in the public sector.  She wound up in public service for the rest of her life

The mean-spirited partisanship and gross incivility of recent times troubled her.  After she left the Supreme Court in 2006    to care for her beloved husband John, who had Alzheimer’s    she turned her considerable energy to crusading for the rule of law.

Traveling  the world , she would say that what matters in a democracy isn’t just the letter of the law but the spirit of civility  –the comity and forbearance essential to get anything accomplished.

As O’Connor herself began to succumb to early dementia, she never lost her feisty practicality.”

(Mr. Thomas’s new book, “First: Sandra Day O’Connor,”  will be published by PenguinRandomHouse on March 19.)

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