The Chemistry of Leadership

In order to succeed as lawyers while leading, we must react and cooperate, advocate with empathy, and earn respect by giving respect. 

Sarah Beth Cain

Hardwick Fellow

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2023

As a child, I quickly recognized what would certainly be one of the most dangerous enemies that I would confront in my adult life: hot lava. To prepare myself mentally and physically for the day on which I would inevitably be faced with my nemesis, I spent entire afternoons jumping from couch to couch in the living room – perfecting the movements necessary to avoid the molten rock that would one day be bubbling beneath my feet.  I got to know my enemy by building small replicas of its home, constructing perfectly canonical mounds of hard clay and artfully mastering the complex topography of those unknown terrains.  I rehearsed my encounter with the explosion from the safety of my parents’ back porch, using a deadly cocktail of acetic acid and sodium bicarbonate.  I was ready.

As it turns out, my chances of encountering a lava-spewing volcano were low and the explosion produced by my “deadly cocktail” was a simple neutralization reaction.  The product, carbon dioxide, is lighter than air so it bubbles up through the top of the solution, producing the satisfying lava-like foam that flows down the sides of the homemade mountain. Although not always so dramatic, there are few things that would function properly in a world without reactions. By the time you finish reading this sentence, billions of them will have taken place in your cells – with a net result of the perfect balance necessary to sustain life.  It is this balance of action and reaction, occurring in perfect harmony and neutralizing the threats to our system, that maintains our constant internal homeostasis.

The importance of balance in life, of course, extends far beyond the biochemistry of the human body.  Success requires balance.  It is an axiom that applies across cultures, industries, and the arts – a fact to which any ballerina worth her salt would surely attest.  This applies equally to leaders (lawyers and nonlawyers). I have had the good fortune to work and study under mentors who are exceptional leaders.  Over time, I noticed shared characteristics among them – including the balancing of options when making decisions and the deliberate and measured nature of their reactions. 

Observing my mentors’ interactions with others taught me some important lessons about how to be a strong leader, even during times of conflict.  I learned that, when faced with an emotionally charged or hotly contested issue, a good leader rarely throws her hands in the air and declares absolute neutrality: she reacts appropriately.  Of course, the reaction is not as strong as a volcano or as fast as the human metabolism; it is thoughtful and filled with intention.  Even when the goal is to neutralize an apparent threat, strong leaders know that failing to react can be a danger of its own.  When tensions are as high as Mount Vesuvius and conflict abounds, inaction can easily be interpreted as abandonment by those whose interests are at stake.  In other words, although neutrality may be the goal of this balance, it cannot be the starting point. 

When the country splits on nearly every issue down ideological lines, leaders must be sensitive to the potential for oppression. This is when diplomacy – not neutrality – becomes paramount. For, as a wise man once said, “if you are neutral on situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Just as the absence of reactions in our cells would cause them to fail in their primary purpose of sustaining life, the absence of reactions on matters of oppression would cause lawyers to fail in our primary purpose of upholding justice.  As students and future practitioners of the law, we face daily calls to action, and we must react accordingly.  We are not just encouraged but required to zealously advocate on behalf of our clients.  As lawyers, we advocate for one position, and one position only in every case. 

Leadership, however, requires more than one-sided advocacy: it requires diplomacy and discretion.  Specifically, leaders must serve those around them by facilitating communication, demonstrating appreciation of each person’s right to their own beliefs, and exemplifying respect for everyone. The adversarial nature of our judicial system may permit lawyers to dispense with some degree of tact, but the cooperative nature of life requires that we exercise the highest degree of empathy and compassion. It may be a challenge to strike the right balance, but it is a challenge that strong leaders embrace.

In order to succeed as lawyers while leading, we must react and cooperate, advocate with empathy, and earn respect by giving respect.  It is that ability to balance humanity with passion that will allow us to achieve success in our professional and personal interactions and maximize our potential as lawyers and leaders.

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