Sometimes, It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

Through mindful collegiality, Ubuntu, civility, and other conduct reinforcing inclusion, a lawyer-leader can motivate action and loyalty in and outside their law practice.

Joan MacLeod Heminway

Interim Director of the Institute for Professional Leadership

Rick Rose Distinguished Professor of Law

University of Tennessee College of Law

The way a person expresses an idea can be important to its acceptance.  This is a simple maxim that is sometimes given short shrift in leadership.  A successful leader has and expresses a vision for their team and the purposes it serves that motivates action and loyalty.  As a result, effective communication is so important to leadership, in and outside the legal profession.  How many of us, for example, have watched a putative thought leader lose their audience because they have failed to communicate sufficiently—or at all—at a key juncture? Worse yet, how many of us have witnessed a leader lose momentum or a following because of the way a significant message was conveyed?

In law practice, we often talk about the need for and benefits of collegiality.  Collegial behavior does not require giving up one’s viewpoint or pretending to agree with others.  It requires cooperative collaboration or friendliness in completing required tasks and, ultimately, a sharing of power and authority.  Collegiality therefore necessitates communicating disagreement considerately and with sensitivity to the “repeat player” nature of many working relationships  (which is not to say that one should behave differently—more poorly—in one-time contacts or cabined or short-term relationships . . . ).

I recently was introduced to Ubuntu, a term coopted from the Zulu and Xhola languages that is grounded in sub-Saharan African moral philosophy described in the following way in the abstract of an 2010 academic article: “According to our African moral theory, actions are right roughly insofar as they are a matter of living harmoniously with others or honoring communal relationships.”  The word acknowledges and encourages consistent recognition of interpersonal human connectedness.  Blog posts here and here define and describe it in context. 

Collegiality and Ubuntu both set the stage for civil discourse—which is important to leadership in and outside the legal profession. Online educational resources published by the U.S. federal courts include a webpage with many helpful strategies, tactics, and tips for engaging in civil discourse.  A number relate to my overall theme in this post—that, as leaders, we should pay more attention to the way we deliver messages and engage in messaging, colloquy, and debate.  For example, the federal courts webpage guidance specifically asks and responds to the question: “What are you doing to create a welcoming environment for differing opinions?” One related tip: “Don’t embarrass yourself or disrespect others by making demeaning or inappropriate comments, facial expressions, or gestures. No eye rolling, sighing, or checking out of the conversation.”  Student-developed suggestions on the webpage include: “Moderate your tone, so that you don’t sound aggressive.”

On this last point, it is important to note that bullying behaviors of any kind are inconsistent with collegiality, Ubuntu, and civility.  Bullying behaviors (e.g., threats, hostile physical postures, demeaning and belittling communication or actions) are considerable problems in and outside the legal profession in the United States.  They disrupt teamwork by their nature, creating or affirming power hierarchies that may suppress discourse altogether—or lead to unproductive shouting matches.  To communicate and lead effectively, one must exemplify norms of collegiality, Ubuntu, and civility through one’s own actions and confront bullying and other conduct norms (including arrogance) that diverge from those norms.

Collegiality, Ubuntu, and civility are all important to sustaining values that lawyer-leaders hold near and dear.   Key among them is inclusion, which has gained wider public attention due to highly publicized incidents involving—and responsive campaigns against—racial or other social injustice. Inclusion is inherent in collegiality, Ubuntu, and civility. In helping to foster continued and increased inclusion, a lawyer-leader must therefore adopt and promote to those in the leader’s sphere of influence both a deep level of introspection and a willingness to rethink and alter the ways in which messages are communicated and dialogue is engaged. Those who feel welcomed by communications from and interchanges with others—even where they may disagree—are much more likely to engage and become invested in any joint enterprise. 

Just because a person can say something in the exercise of their rights to free speech, does not mean that the person should say something. And if someone chooses to say something, the way in which the communication is made can make all the difference.  Through mindful collegiality, Ubuntu, civility, and other conduct reinforcing inclusion, a lawyer-leader can motivate action and loyalty in and outside their law practice.

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