Springfield, IL – In mid-May 2013, two NCMC officers – President Judge Pamela Dembe and Executive Director Gordy Griller – participated as members of a faculty team that presented a 1 ½ day retreat on Trial Court Leadership for the Illinois Conference of Chief Circuit Court Judges. Judicial leaders from all 24 Illinois Judicial Circuits (102 counties) were present including Chief and Associate Chief Judges, Trial Court Administrators, as well as staff from the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. The seminar was developed by the National Center for State Courts and included two additional faculty members noted for their leadership proficiency, Presiding Judge Brian McCabe, Superior Court of California in Merced County, and Sue Dosal, former Minnesota State Court Administrator.
The workshop explored the dynamics of leadership in various court contexts – as a chief judge and court administrator executive team; as a leader within the judicial branch; as responsible for developing and nurturing the non-judicial staff; and as a problem-solver in a very complex organization. The faculty emphasized at the outset that people learn from their own experiences. Learning how to be a better leader – especially if you’ve been chief judge or court administrator for a number of years – is not easy, but with the right tools and information, skills can be improved.
Attendees were asked to think of themselves as at the center of a vast web of interdependent systems. Nobody is autonomous as a leader. All leaders are each an integral part of multiple systems. Leadership in today’s world requires enlarging one’s capacity to see the larger picture – to take a “sky-cam” view of the playing field – and deal with complex, often volatile interdependencies at play. There is probably no more complex set of relationships for leader-judges and leader-administrators, the faculty pointed out, than the justice system which is often described as a world where “everyone is in charge and no one is in charge.”
Even in such a complex environment, basic elements of leadership are at play and their fundamentals can be dissected and taught. Although the faculty mentioned it is one thing to teach knowledge about leadership, they acknowledged it is quite another to prepare people to exercise judgment and skill in applying that knowledge. In this context, it is understood that people do not become effective leaders by being told what they need to know. They must see for themselves and be guided by good coaching and their personal experiences both inside and outside the court environment. The ultimate task of the workshop was to help Illinois trial court leaders learn how to be more competent and to coach more than teach. Although it may sound somewhat grandiose, the faculty referenced that there was something more than a seminar at stake.
The workshop was tailored to the needs of the Illinois courts and funded through a State Justice Institute education grant. Over 60 judges, administrators and state court staff attended.