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Management By Agreement

Lawyer Leaders: The Opportunity of Katrina

by Stewart Levine

October 2005

Within every tragedy lies an opportunity. For the past few weeks we’ve been riveted by the destruction of Katrina – first as a natural disaster, then as a partisan, legal, sociological, buereacritic nightmare resulting in death, destruction and degradation of the human spirit. My shock and disbelief turned to anger and fear about who would be covering my back, and the backs of my loved ones – parents too old, and children too young, to take care of themselves. The geographical distance separating me from my 80-something parents in coastal Florida magnified this.

What can we do, I asked, as individuals and as a profession? How can we show up as the leaders we aspire to be? How can we make a difference? How can we begin to reclaim the role of “fixers” lawyers have historically held? I find myself recalling an image that inspired me to go to law school: the white knight riding up the courthouse steps to save the wrongfully accused, right the wrongs and beat back injustice. No doubt, many of you had a similar image. Though we all may have done our share of that and have war stories to prove it, I think it’s time for us to assert our protective, caring, leadership roles in other ways.

A recurring theme is causing pause. What I’m hearing validates a great concern – that we are a society in decline. A few weeks ago I was celebrating the birthday of a ninety-year-old friend. The first thing he showed me was a book about phenomena currently surfacing in the United States that are eerily similar to historic events from other declining empires. He’s a person with no axe to grind and is not active politically. He just cares and observes with the sensitive ear of an intelligent, articulate elder.

What is the leadership lawyers can provide? What resource lawyers can be in a time of national tragedy, perhaps even national shame? How can we assert ourselves in a way that fosters thoughtful discussion of issues and concerns? How can we engender a spirit of resolve, resolution and useful action? How can we be a stalwart resource for people close to us? How can we be a symbol, a beacon of hope in a darkened landscape?

How can we inspire and empower others? How can we sustain ourselves?

In the early 90s I was working with a coach and a network of pioneers involved in a profound inquiry about leadership. The time was foundational for me as it provided the ground on which I stand today. It inspired and surfaced the life work that has provided an extraordinary sense of power and purpose in my life. It’s time to share that model.

The work I studied was “The Best Work Leadership Course.” The program was invented by Marsha Shenk (www.BestWork.biz) The program centered on three core Leadership Competences:

  1. Models of Reality
  2. Personal Authority
  3. Honor and Gratitude.

and four Leadership Behaviors:

  1. Impeccability
  2. Learning
  3. Powerful Voice
  4. Motivating Purpose and Meaning.

What do these words mean?

The foundation is knowing what your “Best Work” is. Best Work is what you cannot help but do. It is more a function of who you are than any schooling or learned skill. My Best Work is Resolution which I have come to define as the ability to resolve conflict or problems, and having a resoluteness of purpose.

Leadership Competences:

Leadership Behaviors:

[The following paragraph is not meant as a pat on the back, or an “I am terrific” statement; it is meant to demonstrate what is possible when a focused action is guided by sound principles.]

After an incredible level of personal resistance I took the words of the leadership model to heart. I took action with the model as a guide despite being in a place of severely depleted personal assets – emotional, physical and financial. I used these leadership qualities as a source to move my Best Work – Resolution – into the world. It’s been an amazing journey. My methods for resolving conflicts have been sited and made part of the record of the House Judiciary Committee; I have served on the Council of the American Bar Association Law Practice Management Section for six years and was Chair of the Education Board 2000-2003; I was featured in an article about "Trend Setters" in the Legal Profession; my book "Getting to Resolution: Turning Conflict into Collaboration" (Berrett-Koehler 1998) was called "a must read" by Law Practice Management Magazine, it was an Executive Book Club selection, featured by Executive Book Summaries, named one of the 30 Best Business Books of1998, endorsed by Dr. Stephen Covey, author of "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, " featured in "The Futurist" magazine, and has sold more than 20,000 copies. “The Book of Agreement" (Berrett-Koehler 2003) has been called more practical than the classic “Getting to Yes, ” and named among the best books of 2003 by CEO Refresher. www.Refresher.com. My method of organizational change, “The Cycle of Resolution” will be included in the second edition of “The Change Handbook.” I have worked for American Express; Chevron; ConAgra; Deloitte Consulting; Kaiser; EDS; Honda; NASA; Oracle; Safeco; University of San Francisco; Washington DC, and the U.S. Depts. of Agriculture, EPA, Navy, Treasury and the CDC.

I tell you this not to pat myself on the back, but to motivate you in this time of national need; need that is crying out while being pregnant with possibility. I tell you this because you have the power and the ability to touch many people – it’s a matter of choice, a matter of deciding how you want to give to yourself, your family, your organization, your community and the world. Each and every one of you reading this column has a message to deliver. Somewhere beneath the mundane of the matters that you routinely handle there is a message you have to deliver. For some it may be right near the surface, for others finding that voice may take a bit more time. But you do have lessons to share and gifts to give. My work with resolution and agreement came from the frustration I experienced as a litigator. A frustration about the quality of service I was providing my clients, and the quality of integrity I was providing my own soul and spirit.

As lawyers, we are part of the privileged class, regardless of how much we earn, or how much we have accumulated. We are privileged because we have been exposed to how the game of life is played out publicly in the world. We have been steeped and grounded in the rules of engagement for a civil society. We have learned the map of the territory of the external game. Generally that means that not only can we help others, it also means that no one will mess with us, and if they do we can navigate our way out. That has often meant being aggressive, speaking out loudly, taking command, shouting and telling others what to do. I think we live in an age where other skills are called for. I think the world around us is begging for a new kind of quiet, strong, resolute leadership. The earth has had enough conquest, polarization, argument and shouting. We have conquered outer space – literally and figuratively. We are no longer concerned with predators, most diseases, invaders or food. What we do need to be concerned about is getting along on the biosphere, sharing and preserving the sensitive limited resource earth is. Otherwise we will pollute our home, the source of our own sustenance. It’s our own inner space that needs to be conquered as me move from aggression to compassion; from accumulation to sustainability; from consumers to conservers.

Last week I was part of a global conference call with Meg Wheatley, author of the business bestseller “Leadership and the New Science” which many consider one of the most important books about organizations ever written. It’s about how nature organizes itself, and how chaos is a large part of the picture. It’s the opposite of hierarchy in the traditional sense of the alpha at the top telling everyone what to do. Meg was requesting everyone on the call, most of us thinking of ourselves as leaders, to become good “hosts” rather than heroes. It’s a time for convening, for bringing people together to have the heart-felt dialogues so needed in this time of history. And this is precisely the message of Katrina. As frightening as it may be there is no omnipotent wizard behind the curtain. When the veil is pulled back all you can really count on is yourself, and the loved ones around you. What we might do is empower everyone around us to enable them to birth the leader within. Ironically, that’s the essential message Jesus came with.

And there is HOPE. Lots of it. Over the past 20 years I’ve watched progressive movements springing up all over the legal profession.

Just last week the “ College of Law Practice Management,” a group grown out of the ABA Law Practice Management Section, held it’s annual retreat. The guest speaker was David Whyte, the poet, corporate mystic, and author of “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America.” David’s message was about the need to engage in “Courageous Conversations” with ourselves, our colleagues,our family’s, our clients and our futures. In essence, the same message Meg Wheatley delivered.

I believe that lawyers can dust off the mantles of leadership we have always worn. I believe that beneath the Am Law 100 measurement of size of firm and profits per partner lie large hearts and deep souls yearning to contribute. I have held a vision that embedded in the 1,000,000 lawyers in the United States is a power and presence that has the ability to transform the culture we live in from consumption to caring, from adversary to dialogue, from accumulation to empowerment and enlightenment. It’s simply a matter of allowing what’s already there to come through. It begins with a courageous conversation that each one of us might have with themselves. It’s a conversation that asks you to be open, vulnerable, truthful, compassionate, humble and thoughtful. The conversation would be about how we can free the intellectual, leadership and spiritual energy trapped in an adversary system whose primary beneficiary is often the lawyer. How can we get beyond the legal cultural imperative of action in the name of “good Lawyering” to action in the name of good “Humaning.” I believe that when we do that we’ll find people are more aligned than different.

I became tearful when I read the following review of “The Book of Agreement” because it made me realize what I was doing. I’m finally ready to own it. I need your help.

"Every year in law schools across the country, each new generation of future lawyers learn to reproduce the mistrust that is the great tragedy of our individualistic and isolating society by learning that the purpose of legal agreements, or contracts, is to protect you from the Other, that stranger at arm's length who is out to exploit you for his or her own self-interest. Stewart Levine begins from the exact opposite premise--that the purpose of agreement is to build a bridge to the Other and to realize your common aspiration for connection.  Writ large, this idea would revolutionize the study and practice of law and help to realize our spiritual nature as social beings in pursuit of mutual affirmation."

Peter Gabel, Professor of Contract Law, New College Law School; Associate Editor of Tikkun Magazine; President of the Board of New College of California; Director of the Institute for Spirituality and Politics.

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