Amidst the disillusion, a time for leaders who see beyond the horizon
Thinking back over the years, I reflected on the pleasure of being in Baltimore in October to celebrate 5 years of the National Association for Public Defense, started by a national gathering of people who chose to come, explore, create, and lead despite the odds against starting and sustaining a national defender organization. Yet, 5 years later, 18,000 members, over 200 webinars, an electronic library available 24 hours a day, cutting edge leadership education, high quality investigator, social worker training, a strike force to aid lawyers under attack, a focus on reducing workloads.
Leadership is hard work, very hard work. Often, leaders have high internal conflict.
A defender colleague recently told me he was tired. I asked, from what, too much work? Personal matters? Work stress? No, he said, I am depressed from today's deteriorating environment that is undermining progress. A week later, another defender colleague lamented to me that the venomous rhetoric from so many nationally depressed him. The next week, a colleague bemoaned the lack of tangible progress on defender overwork and defender systems that were unable to address their unethical situation because of a lack of independence. Three resilient national leaders, tired, miserable, despondent. Sobering….Three people who I admire, who have such strength, and who have taught me over decades what it means to lead against the odds.
This all brought me down.
Our evil spirits are constantly in competition with our heroic spirits. Today's times are complex, frequently chaotic. I remembered that a former chief defender has observed that defenders have to redefine crisis or they will have crises every day. Straightforward assessment of what defenders face.
Despair seems a rationale response to the problems that appear intractable.
But then I thought more about all of this. My colleagues, all three, in fact, keep on giving their immense intellectual capital, working for more justice, hoping against the odds. That is what authentic leaders do, people not just putting one foot in front of the other amidst the despondency but strategically working for what is best, not just the probable but the possible, the achievable. “It always seems impossible until it's done,” according to Nelson Mandela.
As I thought even more, I remembered the advice from Michael Jinkins who writes a blog, Thinking Out Loud. He urged the mantra, “Accept Chaos, Give Back Calm, Provide Hope.” Sound advice. When things get turbulent, a leader must stabilize people he/she works with in the endeavor. But I also reflected on the other side of calm. Disorder in many ways is a core part of a leader's work. According to Ronald Heifetz, a leading national teacher, “Conflict is the primary engine of creativity and innovation. People don't learn by staring into a mirror; people learn by encountering difference.” Heifetz tells us, “But to practice leadership, you need to accept that you are in the business of generating chaos, confusion, and conflict.”
Thinking back over the years, I reflected on the pleasure of being in Baltimore in October to celebrate 5 years of the National Association for Public Defense, started by a national gathering of people who chose to come, explore, create, and lead despite the odds against starting and sustaining a national defender organization. Yet, 5 years later, 18,000 members, over 200 webinars, an electronic library available 24 hours a day, cutting edge leadership education, high quality investigator, social worker training, a strike force to aid lawyers under attack, a focus on reducing workloads. A national organization led by public defenders. The obvious struck me. Our advantages are immense. Our most significant competitive advantage in the criminal justice system is our sustained passion, profound commitment, endless creativity, client-centered values, spirit of collaboration, unsurpassed intellectual capital….Remarkable set of energy and talent.
Heifetz likely is on to why NAPD has thrived over these five years, “inspiration taps hidden reserves of promise that sustain people through times that induce despair.” Leaders “enable people to envision a future that sustains the best from their past while also holding out new possibilities.” And Heifetz tells us how to lead over the long haul. “Be coolly realistic and unwaveringly optimistic. Practice both optimism and realism. Some people would have you choose one or the other. Believing in one or both is a choice. By holding onto them both, by being unwaveringly optimistic and coolly realistic at the same time, you keep that optimism from floating off to naïveté and the realism from developing into cynicism.”
We know that authentic leaders are people who see meaning in helping others, building up the common good, making a difference. That is what my three friends continue to do despite what they are feeling and verbalizing in this moment. And it is what public defenders do for clients, every day, every case. John Lewis, who knows conflict well, is clear on his guiding principle “Never give up, never give in, never give out. Keep the faith and keep your eyes on the prize.”
Ken Burns at the National Press Club https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYC5fctpmTk talking about his fascinating PBS series on the Roosevelts, described the consequential nature of the lives of all three of the Roosevelts, Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor. They, “had distance in their eyes.” They saw around the horizon, facing their fears, outrunning their demons.
Like you, NAPD sees around the horizon. Let's celebrate.