Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

On February 13th of this year, the Supreme Court lost an intellectual heavyweight, a model for conservatism, in Antonin Scalia. His death ignited a political firestorm as Republicans and Democrats now fight to replace this controversial Supreme Court Justice. Almost lost in this story, though, is the grieving. Perhaps few have grieved more than Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

These two represent an odd couple if there ever was one. Physically and intellectually, many compared Scalia to a bear. Demonstrative and biting, this ultra conservative Catholic was known to write scathing dissents and is largely recognized as the most aggressive questioner on the bench. Ginsberg, diminutive in size, was in many regards the opposite: strongly liberal and progressive, Jewish, and soft-spoken in her dealings. Amazingly, they were the best of friends. There are lessons here that touch upon leadership and personal relationships. We reflect on a couple below.

First, disagreement should never mean disrespect. It’s possible, although difficult, to remain passionate about an idea or a course of action without tearing another person, who disagrees, down. On the judicial continuum, it is difficult to think of two intellectual forces more apart in how they viewed the law and the Constitution. In spite of their differences, disagreement never boiled over to disrespect. Just the opposite, those that cover our nation’s highest court, remarked that there was mutual liking and respect between the two. So, the next time you diverge with someone who sees the world differently or suggests a course of action to solving a problem that you don’t buy, feel free to disagree—but do so in a way that never spills over to disrespect. By the way, if you ever want to see what NOT to do, go on to Facebook and see the political hate and viciousness. This isn’t discourse. The leaders that read this newsletter are better than that.

Second, we need to leave our egos at the door. We should invite and be comfortable with people attacking our ideas—just as long as they aren’t attacking us. We’ve seen too many people take it personally. In a spirit of true intellectual honesty and curiosity, Ginsberg and Scalia seemed able to divorce their personalities and friendships from their judicial opinions and philosophy. In other words, they attacked each other’s ideas with rigor and force without attacking the person. Maybe most importantly, they seemed to welcome the intellectual challenge—without ever taking it personal.

Some parting thoughts and questions—do you always get defensive about your proposals and ideas or, conversely, do you welcome—even invite—challenge? As a leader, are you fostering relationships like Scalia and Ginsberg where ideas are ferociously attacked without ever going after the person? Do people feel free, even encouraged, to disagree? When you’ve witnessed another leader attack a person rather than their idea or proposal, did you correct and coach them? Or did you look away?

The death of Antonin Scalia has, on both sides, instantly turned political. Lost in the carnival atmosphere, however, are some elegant leadership lessons. Just maybe, because of this column, we’ll disagree better this month. By the way, if you can’t disagree in a healthy way or lobby good challenges at each other, you have a teamwork problem. Your next step should be to call Evan at 240.727.5965 or send an email at evan@elpadvantage.com.