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Want to Change the World? The Journey Begins Within.

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An inscription on the tomb of an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey:

“When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser I discovered the world would not change – So I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country, but it too seemed immovable. As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it. And now I realize as I lie on my deathbed, if I had only changed myself first, then by example I might have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement I would then have been able to better my country, And who knows, I might have even changed the world.”

Before you can lead an organization or community … before you can impact the world … you must first “lead” yourself.  For us, the most important aspect of any leadership development program is to start with a focus on “growing” yourself. Easier said than done!  But why? Could it be that we are too eager to skip ahead to leaving our mark on the world? We can be so focused on doing the “important” and wanting to be remembered for what we accomplish that we forget leadership – like any other subject in law school – begins at the beginning. There is no substitute for the elemental work that feeds our growth layer by layer, branch by branch.

In our leadership development course, we spend about half our time guiding the students on a journey of self-discovery. Since we begin every orientation at Baylor Law with emphasis on the role of lawyers in society (as guardians of our democracy, trusted advisors to their clients and leaders in their communities), we do not start from ground zero in our leadership development class. We begin with a deeper discussion of our obligations to society and the important opportunities they will have to be influencers with integrity. After setting expectations for their future, we introduce them to leadership characteristics, traits, and styles, as well as various scenarios where their leadership will be needed. Starting with these concepts, terms and contexts – the language of leadership development – sets the foundation.

The core of our leadership class is devoted to helping students come to “know” themselves – their preferences, strengths, and areas of challenge. We know this is essential to prepare them for future situations that will require them to act and to make decision, or to offer guidance to those who will.  We guide our students through a series of discussions, self-assessments and self-reflective exercises designed to help them be better prepared, even practiced, for those future actions and opportunities. Just as with other areas, we know that students are more likely to handle a difficult or stressful situation, even a crisis, with competence and integrity if they have seen or at least thought about the scenario, or a similar one, at some time before. That is the wisdom and judgment gained through practice and experience.

We also spend some time in our course on what it means to “lead” others (including working well with others, recognizing the influence lawyers can have on others, and successfully building an inclusive team). We end with an attempt to inspire students to consider the impact they want to have on the world and then to be thoughtful, strategic and adaptive as they plan their next steps.  

Leadership development is a life-long journey to be better at helping others be more and accomplish more. As lawyers, our legal education and training, and our sense of honor and purpose as guardians of our democracy, make us ideally suited to impact those around us … and, yes, maybe even change the world… if we recognize early enough that it all begins with us.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

-LJT