Effective Judicial Leadership Needed

Note: This is part one of a two-part discussion on judicial leadership.

It is demoralizing to feel unappreciated, so it is not surprising that many court leaders feel a bit despondent when people don’t care if courts have to do more with less. Some members of the public feel that “courts are no different than the rest of government,” and “we should have less government anyway.” Naturally, those of us who work in the courts interpret tighter funding to really mean that our work is valued less and less.

These improvements have not been matched by higher levels in people of trust and confidence in their courts.

A Lack of Trust

Reduction in courts’ budgets, coupled with studies of the courts show that the objective quality of the justice system has improved over recent decades, but these improvements have not been matched by higher levels in people of trust and confidence in their courts. This is especially true for people of color.

Then there are the political barbs tossed at the “activist judiciary.” The elections of this year will generate a new cascade of barbs. The pejorative label may actually intimidate or affect judicial decision-making. They certainly undermine trust and confidence in courts. For example, 75% of the public now think judges’ decisions are, to a significant or moderate extent, influenced by the judge’s political or personal views.   Virtually the same percentage of people believe judges make their decisions while influenced by a desire to be appointed to a higher court, and not by the merits of the case. As troublesome as underfunding of courts is, erosion of the public’s perception of the legitimacy of judges’ decisions may prove to be far more damaging to the very core of justice.

An Internal Struggle

There are many vibrant and inspiring court leaders throughout this country, but it is undeniable that some court administrators feel they are in a losing battle for control with judges. Some judges feel their courts are rapidly becoming bureaucratic cesspools of rules, regulations, and policy initiatives that are foreign to what type of institution the judiciary should be.   There are a lot of judges, administrators and court employees who are feeling under siege and a bit under appreciated. These emotions are not good for the courts and something needs to change.

Effective leadership demands a deeper understanding of things. In a crassly simplistic way, management thinking says, “Find the source of the pain and stop it.” Effective leadership demands a deeper understanding of things. While managers may do an effective job of fixing problems, effective leaders stay in the chaos long enough to discover chronic patterns. Dr. Warren Hoffman, a noted leadership coach, puts it this way: Management is responsible for managing the manageable, fixing the fixable, securing the securable and protecting resources. That’s not very risky. Authentic leadership, however, is dealing with surprises, describing the unknown, predicting the unpredictable, anticipating the nameless and anonymous, organizing chaos, and stepping in places where angels fear to walk, speaking with authority from a dusty crystal ball, staying positive and hopeful while everyone else is going insane. Now that’s risky.

Leadership Requires Taking Risk

It is not always easy to be a leader and a risk-taker. Fear of failure too often paralyzes the meek. Fear that a failed initiative will generate bad news coverage or, worse yet, public criticism from the other branches of government is chilling and inhibits creative problem solving. Calculated risk taking is an inherent part of being a well-run organization. Court leaders who are skilled at listening, who afford respect, and who can effectively communicate, build legitimacy not just for their own work, but for the institution as a whole. It sounds trite, but court leaders cannot fear failure.   Courts face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions. Fear inhibits courts from learning and trying new ways to serve their communities.

It is not always easy to be a leader and a risk-taker. Not every new court initiative will be a success. Limiting initiatives to the “sure thing” may be the cautious thing to do, but it is not always the right or most effective thing to do. There are multiple reasons why courts find it hard to take calculated risks. Debate within courts about alternatives is not always as vibrant as it should be. Courthouse staff may have their creativity inhibited by the perceived power relationships judges have over the rest of the staff. The training for lawyers which is steeped in a commitment to precedent does not help. For a judge, looking to the past for guidance on the present legal issue is almost always wise; looking to the past for guidance in how to deliver judicial services is a far more debatable strategy. Logical debate based upon the best evidence available within the courthouse is imperative. Part II of this article will explore the need for trust to be a central part of your leadership style.