Leadership Development in Law School in One Week?

Guest Post by Professor Kathleen Elliott Vinson
Professor of Law, Suffolk University Law School

If leadership development is a life-long learning process, can a one-week intensive intersession leadership course possibly be effective for law students? Spoiler alert – yes it can!

 “I thought the course would be lectures about lawyers who are leaders.” “I thought the class would tell us we had to adopt a particular leadership style or have a particular talent.” “I thought you had to be born a natural leader.” “I never considered myself a leader before.” These were common myths and comments of students as they reflected back on the Lawyers as Leaders intensive one-week course during the winter intersession.

Instead, after completing the course, students learned that leadership is a skill that can and should be taught in law schools. They discovered that leadership is not an innate ability, title or trait. They began to develop their leadership skills through practice, feedback, and reflection.

The course focused on leading self, leading others, and leading change. Although time was limited, threads throughout the course included self-discovery and relationships. Students realized leadership is personal and requires trust. Students engaged in self-assessments, role-playing, reflections, and working in teams. At the core, students focused on their sense of purpose (their “why”), their values, their identities, their preferences as well as others, their strengths and blind spots, and what they envisioned as their leadership philosophy and legacy.

Class began with students sharing their #ThisIsMe assignment that included their responses (including pictures) to several prompts (what do you find challenging, what are you proud of, what is something that scares you, what is your theme song, what is a fond childhood memory, etc.) Their generosity, courage, and vulnerability in sharing their responses developed trust and connections with everyone in the class that grew stronger each day of the course. They grappled with defining what leadership means and went on to explore leadership theories and styles, personality preferences, well-being, fixed v. growth mindset, grit and resilience, the gift of feedback, emotional intelligence, conflict styles and difficult conversations, characteristics of inspiring leaders, inclusive leadership, and the impact of leadership.

While the breadth and depth of each concept may have been more of an introduction than a deep dive, the one-week course was a start for students on their life-long journey of leadership development — like a train leaving the station and traveling along a track. The journey may be different for each student. I was grateful to be a small part of their leadership journey — like a conductor on a train full of different passengers.

Thus, I ended class with a clip from Polar Express when the conductor (Tom Hanks) punches the train tickets of several children as they board the Polar Express on their way home from their journey to the North Pole. The conductor had previously punched two letters in each of the children’s tickets at the beginning of the journey to the North Pole. Then, when the conductor punches their tickets on the return trip, the holes in the ticket become a word or phrase representing a message the child has learned. As they board the train for the return trip, the first child’s ticket that the conductor punches holes in spells the word “Learn.” The holes the conductor punches in the ticket of the next child spells the phrase “Depend On” then it magically changes to “Rely On” then “Count On.” The holes punched in the ticket of the third child spell out the word “Lead” (“as in leader, leadership, lead the way”). The ticket of the last child spells “Believe.” These tickets summed up several leadership lessons in the course, no matter the length of the journey: leadership can be learned; trust is essential; leadership is not about a title but about the action to lead; and finally, believe you are a leader, that you can continue to develop leadership, and that your leadership will have an impact.

Perhaps because students were immersed every day, all day, for a week, learning about leadership that many remarked that the connections they made, and the impact of the course felt deeper than a semester-long course. It may not be the length of the journey that matters (the journey on the Polar Express was only one night), it is the lessons learned along the way. Don’t hesitate to get on board the train.

– Kathleen Elliott Vinson


Cultivating wellness in those who lead and those who are led

Guest Post By R. Lisle Baker
Professor of Law, Suffolk University Law School, Boston, MA

How can we cultivate wellness in those who lead and those who are led?

Lead from our strengths and draw on the strengths of those being led.

The late Dr. Christopher Peterson was a psychologist who offered this prescription for wellness in his Positive Psychology Primer: “if you want to be healthier, you should eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and not smoke. You should have good relationships with other people and pursue activities that are fulfilling.”

Most of us think we understand diet, exercise and smoking – even if we don’t always follow the behaviors they reference. But how about having good relationships and finding fulfillment? They are general principles with less clear content.

One way I have found helpful with my students is to help them understand their unique set of character strengths, which can help them pursue activities that are fulfilling. Then they can use their awareness of their own strengths to perceive those strengths in those with whom they might interact – helping them have better relationships with those they lead. But how do they learn what those strengths might be?

Many law teachers are aware of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, used by psychologists to classify and treat various kinds of behavioral health concerns. What is less well known is that the same Dr. Christopher Peterson directed and co-authored with Dr. Martin Seligman a treatise they referred to as a “manual of the sanities.” Their joint work, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, examined 24 strengths of character which have been valued across time and cultures. They are:

List of 24 strenghts of character: Creativity	Curiosity	Judgment
Love of Learning	Perspective	Bravery
Perseverance	Honesty	Zest
Love	Kindness	Social Intelligence
Teamwork	Fairness	Leadership
Forgiveness	Humility	Prudence
Self-regulation	Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence	Gratitude
Hope	Humor	Spirituality

But what makes their work most helpful is a questionnaire which allows anyone, without charge from the nonprofit VIA Institute on Character, to see what particular pattern of such strengths they have. The ones we rely on most often feel so natural to us that we may be unaware of them, like using a dominant hand, unless asked to reflect on what it would be like if we could not use them for an extended period. But people who become aware of their strengths, and use them appropriately in a chosen role, can lead more fulfilling lives. That is one way to meet part of what Dr. Peterson recommended for wellness.

As for good relationships with other people, when we become aware of our own strengths, we can also begin to notice strengths in other people. Mark Twain once wrote, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Often, however, for want of something better, our compliments may oftenfocus on something obvious, like how we dress. But what if instead we tell them what good they have done and how they have done it?

Part of the challenge is that we may not have a large enough vocabulary to do so. But if you notice and comment on other people’s perseverance or bravery or kindness, and say how you saw it expressed, you are honoring some of their 24 character strengths. A bonus is that because their top strengths are aspects of who they are, they may also take them for granted and not be as aware of them as we might be as observers of their behavior. When, however, they find them pointed out, they feel appreciated – perhaps even if a little bashful, as accepting a compliment is sometimes harder than giving one. Doing so, however, honors the giver as well as the recipient.

Leadership, however, extends beyond compliments. When we notice and call upon the strengths of those we lead for action, we can combine theirs with ours to enhance chances for success in a chosen task, just as a team can do more on the playing field than an individual can alone.

Looking for opportunities to compliment – and complement – character strengths in other people also provides us opportunities to honor others’ diversity. We often rely on visible signs of our differences rather than also looking for those invisible distinctions that can add additional value. Spotting and calling on their strengths offer us a means to that end which can further deepen our relationships. We, as law professors, have a role to play in teaching students how to be well themselves and lift up others. Understanding and appreciating our strengths and that of others can be helpful ways for aspiring leaders – as well as those of us who teach them – to have good relationships with other people and pursue leadership activities they find fulfilling – with greater wellness for all involved.  

– R. Lisle Baker