By Liz Fraley
As I write this, our nation waits anxiously for who will win the presidential election. I use the word ‘win’ advisedly, as it seems difficult to conceive of a result that will be accepted with grace and unification by those on the ‘losing’ side. Bitter disputes make for more difficult times after resolution, and this is as true in a legal setting such as a trial as in this electoral cycle. The participation trophy does not apply; these are binary situations in which there is a winner and a loser. The challenge for leadership, then, lies in how to proceed in such a deeply divisive and potentially disappointing time.
For the winner, leadership requires modeling grace and conciliation. While victory feels good, the real challenge is moving forward in a way that recognizes the struggle and humanity of your opponent. We learned the lesson of punitive victory following World War I with the Treaty of Versailles. WWI’s victors felt the need to exact retribution from the Germans, placing a crushing burden on the country both financially and emotionally. This was an understandable desire given the unbelievable toll of the war, but the consequence was another more horrific war. We will never know how world events would have unfolded with a more conciliatory plan to move forward; we know with irrefutable evidence the damage that a cruel victory exacted.
Lawyer are experienced in situations where there are winners and losers. Whether in trial or negotiating a deal, there likely will be a winner, and the party on the losing side may reel at the impact of that decision. Sometimes the impact is financial; sometimes it is emotional; oftentimes it involves both. Lawyers can play a vital role in helping colleagues, friends, families, and communities find a graceful way to move forward and bring healing to what is a difficult situation for both sides.
What of the losing party: how do you deal with difficult news you did not want to hear? How as a lawyer do you advise a client or bolster the morale of a team? This requires true courage and thoughtfulness. First, you have to help the team and client accept the outcome, especially if it represents the true end of the road. In many ways, accepting a known outcome, albeit difficult, is easier than one which remains uncertain. Second, debrief and learn the lessons of the loss. This may mean examining processes or leadership decisions; it may simply require an understanding that lawyers are not in the outcome control business. Either way, help your team learn, accept, and move on. Finally, have a plan for going forward. More senior lawyers can help younger lawyers, and law students, learn how to bounce back and developing resilience as a team strength happens most effectively following a loss. Success is not about how high you bounce, it is about how high you bounce back after hitting bottom. A team that cannot bounce back is fundamentally flawed; leading your team back to confidence is vital.
Our country will need to internalize these leadership lessons in the coming months. No one will ‘win’ this election if we do not learn that we must come together for the country, not for an individual or ideology. Our leaders, whoever they may be, will win only if they reunite the country rather than divide them more deeply. The current course is not sustainable; we must move forward with the help of strong and compassionate leadership.