Leaders Make People Better

In reality, as a leader you have one simple job: to make your people better.

Chris Davis

Major USMC*

Trial Counsel

Legal Services Support Section – East Camp Lejeune, NC

Often when I speak on the topic of leadership, people will say to me, “being a leader is hard.”  Typically, I will respond with something along the lines of “well, it really is, but at the same time – it really isn’t.”  

What do I mean by that?  (Aside from the obvious, that I was paying attention during law school and able to “get to maybe.”)

The great Stoic teacher Seneca puts it plainly in Moral Letters to Lucilius: “Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts!”  He continued, “Nobody can live happy if he cares only for himself, if he turns everything to his own benefit: you have to live for others, if you want to live for yourself.”

In reality, as a leader you have one simple job: to make your people better.  That means whenever one acts with the intention of making someone (or something) better, you are leading.  

Now as lawyers, that seems to come with the territory.  Our job description could quite possibly be summed up with the act of improving the situation of our clients – whomever or whatever that might be.  Effectively, lawyers sit the vast crossroads in society – occupying the space between what is and what ought to be.  

This is, no doubt, an intimidating responsibility when viewed from 50,000 feet up.  Change is never easy, and being responsible for positive change is daunting.  However, when we focus in on our daily responsibilities, it becomes much simpler:

  • Who in your life are you making better?  
  • Are you applying this concept around the office, in your home, or in your community?

And more importantly:

  • How are you actively working at improving this skill – the skill of making people better, investing in and working at being a better leader?  (Self-improvement is a critical task for a leader.)

Support of the practice of Stoicism has seen a reemergence in the last decade – helping people from all walks of society face the challenges of everyday life.  And all that before a global pandemic upended any semblance of normality.  My own personal study of the Stoics and the lessons of their lives has become even more applicable for me, as I grow older.  Originally, as an impressionable Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy and then as an untested Marine Corps officer, I appreciated the philosophy of enduring physical pain and pushing through challenges.  (The teachings of Vice Admiral James Stockdale and captivity in a Vietnam as a prison of war is a topic on which I have previously have written for the Leading as Lawyers blog.)

Now, as a lawyer, I appreciate the philosophy, on a deeper level. 

In an effort to improve the lives of the common citizen, Zeno of Citium founded the first school of Stoicism around 300 B.C. – not in a classroom, but at the Stoa Poikile (a Greek term meaning “painted porch” – and where the word Stoa[cism]is derived).  Arguably the greatest Stoic was the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius who wrote in Meditations (5.23 – 24), that people are our proper occupation“[It is my] job to do them good.”  When we make others better, “we perform our greatest function.”

None of this will just happen.  Leadership is work, a constant process that never ends. It is about working to get a little bit better today than you were yesterday.  Because when you do – and when you live for others – the people around you are better, too.  

Societal change is difficult.  Leading a large organization is difficult.  Preparing to take a contested case to trial is difficult.  Sitting next to your client, as they clutch to your arm, anticipating a judge’s verdict is difficult.  Because leadership is difficult.  

But if you take a step back and remember that our job – our only job – as a leader is to make the people around us better, you will be successful.  Your team will be successful.  And you will be a leader worth following. 

*The viewpoints contained herein are that of the Author’s. They are not representative of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Marine Corp.

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