In Polarized Times, Lead Like a Chief Justice, by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):
For leaders, holding the center without compromising your authority, your relationships or your principles is a daunting challenge. It requires a delicate balance of aggression and restraint, hard work and tactical savvy, personal charisma and alligator skin.
There’s only one manager I know who has been trying to thread this needle for well over a decade. It’s John Roberts, the 65-year-old chief justice of the United States. ...
Since his 2005 appointment by President George W. Bush, the chief justice’s reliably conservative judicial record hasn’t won many admirers from the left. That said, he has also sided with the court’s liberal wing often enough to become a target for the right. President Donald Trump once called him “an absolute disaster.” ...
By my count, there are four “Roberts Rules” of leadership.
1. Muscular Messaging
Since his confirmation hearings, when he famously likened the role of a judge to that of an umpire, Chief Justice Roberts has consistently expressed support for the court’s political independence. The more polarized we become, the more aggressive he gets. ... In divided times, it’s tempting to strike a measured tone. But that’s not a particularly useful way to defend your integrity. ...
2. Practical Gradualism
Great leaders, as a rule, never surrender moral authority. You can’t give people the impression that you stand for nothing. Sometimes, however, holding the center means making decisions that don’t align with your principles.
In several closely watched cases, Chief Justice Roberts has protected the court’s independence by breaking ranks with fellow conservatives, even when his judicial record suggested he wouldn’t.
In June, for example, he voted to strike down a Louisiana law that placed some restrictions on doctors who perform abortions, even though he had ruled the opposite way, in dissent, on a similar case in 2016. ... A better example is the decisive vote he cast in 2012, under enormous public scrutiny, to uphold President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. ...
The lesson is this: When all eyes are on you and the center is vulnerable, leaders should resist the urge to act boldly on principle. A better approach is to imagine that you’re trying to ride a bike as slowly as possible. You need to look down, not up: to focus on the small maneuvers that keep you from falling over.
3. Energetic Persuasion
Chief Justice Roberts is often described as an upbeat, collegial leader who nurtures the court’s team dynamic in myriad ways; from organizing birthday parties to avoiding petty fights. On the bench, he refers to opposing lawyers as “friends” rather than “adversaries.” ...
4. Standing Apart
The sad truth about impartial leadership is that if you do it right, you’ll eventually offend everybody. You have to be comfortable with that. ...
In 2017, for example, he presided over a welcome ceremony for Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was, by a straight count, the 113th Justice. In a move that only intimates noticed, Chief Justice Roberts introduced him as No. 101.
This wasn’t a mistake: it was a distinction. His count was limited to Associate Justices. It excluded Chief Justices. The message was subtle, but undeniably clear.
To stand in the center, the Chief must stand apart.
Other Captain Class leadership columns:
- When Should 'Gladiatorial Leadership' Be Tolerated (Or Even Encouraged)? (Mar. 21, 2019)
- Gallup's 'Single Most Profound Finding In Its History': 70% Of An Organization's Success Depends On The Quality Of Its Managers (Mar. 27, 2019)
- Great Leaders Abhor Half-Measures: Why John Adams Succeeded With The Declaration Of Independence And Theresa May Failed With Brexit (June 7, 2019)
- How Much Do Coaches (And Deans) Matter? (July 9, 2019)
- The Seven Leadership Secrets Of Great Team Captains (July 26, 2019)
- In A Life-Or-Death Crisis, Humility Is Everything (Aug. 1, 2019)
- Deuteronomy Leadership (Sept. 15, 2019)
- WeWork’s Adam Neumann As A Millennial Jobs Prophet: The Search For Fulfilling Work (Sept. 23, 2019)
- Declining Participation In Football Threatens American Exceptionalism (Jan. 19, 2020)
- Covid-19 Was A Leadership Test. It Came Back Negative. (Apr. 4, 2020)
- The Best Leaders Are Often Reluctant Leaders (Apr. 6, 2020)
- Leadership Lessons From The COVID-19 Pandemic (Apr. 9, 2020)
- Leadership Lessons For The COVID-19 Recovery (Apr. 27, 2020)
- Why Bill Cartwright, Not Michael Jordan, Was The Chicago Bulls' Most Valuable Leader (May 20, 2020)
- Chief Justice Roberts' Rules For Leading In Polarized Times (Oct. 22, 2020)
- The Role Of Empathy In Effective Leadership (Nov. 16, 2020)