Washington Lawyer

Teaching Leadership

From Washington Lawyer, October 2015

By Tim Webster

Tim Webster | Photography by Patrice Gilbert

Among the many courses not taught in law school—languishing along with stress management, Power- Point, and other essentials—is leadership. But is leadership teachable? When the D.C. Bar launched the John Payton Leadership Academy in 2013, some may have questioned the feasibility of doing so, especially to professionals who customarily represent the narrow, special interests of only their clients.

The argument against organized leadership training, if anyone were to make it, would hinge on the banal view that leaders are born, not made, or that leaders must fit a certain mold. Even a cursory look at past U.S. presidents illustrates the great range of differences in effective leadership qualities and styles, from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy (who was to have said, in the speech he never delivered on November 22, 1963, "leadership and learning are indispensable to each other"). And the military has proven for hundreds of years that successful leaders can be developed from the raw material of bright young men and women. Great leaders may share some qualities, but they express and leverage their strengths in unique ways.

So why not the D.C. Bar? The Academy evolved from the vision of past Bar president Kim M. Keenan, who wanted to identify, inspire, and educate Bar members to become volunteer leaders. Her nascent concept was incorporated into the Bar's strategic plan and entrusted to the Bar's Leadership Development Committee, which developed the Academy. During the initial planning stages, the committee held brainstorming sessions and created a list of traits, knowledge, and skills that a successful D.C. Bar leader should possess. It then divided the list into those that can be taught (knowledge and skills) and those that can be observed and potentially emulated (traits).

The committee and Bar staff, with the help of professional trainers, subsequently designed the Academy's curriculum and developed interactive learning activities to convey the knowledge elements and to help participants to develop and refine their core leadership skills. The committee set tough learning objectives not only to achieve the goal of creating a pool of strong candidates for leadership positions at the D.C. Bar and at other volunteer organizations, but also to imbue those candidates with skills they could apply to any aspect of their careers.

Academy participants are immersed in the Bar's structure and culture, learning the nuances of serving as a volunteer for an organization as complex as the D.C. Bar. Professional facilitators help participants to develop a "tool kit" of crucial skills, including consensus building, strategic thinking, problem solving, and effective communication. The Academy also stresses the importance of developing less concrete skills, such as self-awareness. Participants take multiple assessments to determine their leadership styles and strengths and their behavior and communication styles.

While it may be true that you cannot directly teach traits, such as integrity, it is possible to illustrate an organizational culture that embraces leadership values. Ask a graduate of the Academy to tell you which session made the most profound impact, and he or she will probably talk about past president Jim Sandman's presentation on civility and professionalism in volunteer leadership. Each year, Sandman emphasizes three critical components of civility and professionalism for success in volunteer leadership: integrity, treating others with respect, and valuing diversity. Through his candid accounts of real-life situations he has encountered, Academy participants absorb the deep and lasting understanding that personal character is critically important.

The long-term success of the Academy, which has graduated three classes so far, will require many years to assess fully. The early metrics, however, are indisputable. As the old proverb goes, "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." Of the 51 alumni of the Academy, four were recently elected to the D.C. Bar Board of Governors;one serves as chair of the Sections Council;14 are serving or have served on one or more of 13 different Bar committees or task forces;four currently serve on section steering committees;and 13 are serving or have served on the boards of voluntary bars.

The early subjective feedback is promising, too. One common theme many graduates reflect upon is the value of becoming more conscious of their own strengths and potential weaknesses. The process of assessing and evaluating oneself is both enlightening and humbling, but through it our future leaders learn what they can utilize today—and what they could improve for tomorrow. This even led to an epiphany for one graduate, who realized that she was not being her true self but was instead attempting to imitate the "ideal" employee in her office. By completing the self-assessments and dissecting different leadership styles, that graduate came to embrace her true self in a way that led her to greater success in her career. As Keenan tells each year's participants during her presentation, rather than trying to imitate a great leader, "lead as you."

The answer to the question "Can leadership be taught?" is surely yes. Participating in the Academy does not guarantee success, but it does provide its graduates with essential building blocks. Where they go from there is up to them, but the fact that they showed enough initiative to even apply, in the first place, suggests they will go far.

The Academy is named for John Payton, who was president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund when he died in 2012. While an accomplished civil rights lawyer, he was more affectionately known to the D.C. Bar as one of its most inspiring leaders—he was Bar president from 2000 to 2001.

Applications for the 2016 Academy are being accepted through December 4, 2015. Learn more about the Academy and the application process.

Reach Tim Webster at twebster@dcbar.org.