There is No Place for Schadenfreude in Leadership


Joan MacLeod Heminway
Rick Rose Distinguished Professor of Law
University of Tennessee College of Law

Competition exists all around us.  We see it in the stadiums and arenas in which our sports teams play, it is present in the many game shows on television, and it exists in industry as businesses fight for market dominance.  And, of course, it exists between and among lawyers.

Lawyers can be very competitive, and aspects of law practice are seemingly inherently competitive.  For instance, a trial or appellate litigator seeks to win the case for her client at the cost of the opposing side.  And a transactional business lawyer engages her best powers of persuasion on each key point in a contract negotiation to achieve maximum benefits for her client.  In these and other similar law practice contexts, it’s about #winning.  And that can be consistent with appropriate professional conduct characterized as zealous advocacy in the preamble and the first comment to Rule 1.3 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct.  (See my colleague Paula Schaefer’s nice 2011 article on zealous advocacy from the Florida State University Law Review.)

Yet, lawyers as leaders must realize that their competitive nature or the competitive nature of their work should not include gloating over an adversary’s defeat or smugly lording it over another’s loss.  Schadenfreude or epicaricacy (as it is known, but rarely used, in the English language)—rejoicing in the adversities of others—indicates a failure of personal and professional leadership.  It is rooted in envy and results in lying/deception and the mistreatment of others, as noted in a 2010 Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation blog post.  Sadly, according to a short piece posted on the Psychology Today website, because schadenfreude triggers positive self-feelings, it is a natural human response.  Significantly, schadenfreude may be contagious in workplaces, according to a recent article published in the Academy of Management Review, summarized here.

Leadership is, of course, about looking out for and lifting up those on your team—not just yourself, and especially not yourself at the expense of others.  While individualism, diversity, independence, and self-pride are important aspects of a functional team, each team member must use these attributes for the collective good of the whole—not selfishly or with ego or malice.  So, how does a leader counteract the natural individual tendency toward schadenfreude and stem its spread?

The researchers who authored the recently published Academy of Management Review article mentioned above suggest a few courses of action.  Set forth below is an excerpt from the practical implications they shared in their co-authored article that explains key elements of the overall approach they suggest.

Organizations should reduce structural, interpersonal, and intergroup tensions that cause initial schadenfreude.  First, to counter the competition that generates schadenfreude, organizations should promote cooperation through shared visions and team-based incentives.  Second, because envy is associated with schadenfreude, organizations should encourage practices that reduce envy.  Managers should be aware that deservingness is a key determinant of emotional reactions to upward comparisons—that is, whereas undeserved advantages incur envy and resentment, deserved advantages elicit benign responses.  Thus, procedural justice and distributive justice are essential for preventing high achievers from being targets of envy.  Third, managers should promote inclusive climates to reduce intergroup tension.

Although the article refers to “managers,” leaders of all kinds can use these tips to help counteract schadenfreude and stop its spread when they observe it.  This will not be easy, however, since the researchers note that observers of schadenfreude make judgments about whether it is deserved or undeserved in specific cases and may actually withdraw from interaction with the victim when the schadenfreude is deemed to be undeserved (a/k/a “ambivalent”).

Since the joy in ambivalent schadenfreude results from others’ unjustified expense, observers may feel accompanied negative emotions such as guilt, shame, anxiety, and embarrassment.  To reduce such aversive feelings and to save face, observers may choose to socially distance themselves from victims.  Social avoidance is a form of emotion-based coping in which observers avoid interactions with victims by working around them and finding alternative sources for information or resources that victims could provide.

This type of withdrawal from interaction may handicap a leader from taking action to reduce tension within her team.  Leaders must rise above and commit to address the tendency to judge or withdraw in order to keep their teams productive and happy.  Achievement of an inclusive environment involves addressing the behaviors of all team players: the perpetrators, victims, and observers of schadenfreude.

In sum, an effective leader analyzes and suppresses feelings of schadenfreude and establishes structures and practices that limit its emergence in and contagion among team members.  She must look out for more than her own guilty pleasure and that of select individual team members as other team members suffer defeats and challenges.  Otherwise, #winning becomes solely individual, causing fractures in the team that handicap leadership and limit the team’s ability to perform and achieve its collective goals.



Leadership in the Time of Pandemic


Jack H. (Nick) McCall
Tennessee Valley Authority
Knoxville, Tennessee

“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

Albert Camus, The Plague

I suspect for the majority of us that when we summon up most of the basic ideas of leadership, implicitly, we tend to think of one person—the leader—dealing with a group.  For those of us who practice law, even if our practice area is a small law firm or legal staff, that perception may conceptually make sense in general terms.  Indeed, we have office colleagues; we have clients; we have opposing counsel and counterparties.  Naturally, these tend to involve some sort of groupings of people.  While quite a few studies have focused on the psychological makeup of many of us as being typically more introverts than extroverts, we still, as a natural consequence of our profession, have to deal with, communicate with, and strive to influence other people.

So, how does the above hold true in a time when, as a matter of public safety, we and our fellow citizens are advised to practice social distancing—to (in an expression maybe more suited for tornado safety or active-shooter drills) shelter in place?  How does leadership work in a time when teams, offices, and colleagues are having to be dispersed?  A time when, in the face of a growing health crisis such as coronavirus, many of us cannot help but find ourselves feeling (of necessity) more alone and isolated than we may have in years?

While so many of us are having to adapt to what is often called—although sometimes it feels glib to say so—“our new normal,” there is little about this time of quarantine that feels even remotely normal.  Even for those of us who may be introverted or who are already accustomed to offsite work or occasional teleworking from home, there is something in the nature of this looming health situation that is just different.  Perhaps, it is that even though previous crises we have faced in our lifetimes, such as 9/11, did affect us, that effect was, frankly, not as directly personal on a day-to-day basis—not as directly health or life-threatening at its core to the average American.

This time, it’s different.

The scale of the infections, the speed of the spread of this contagion, and the compounding effects that are wreaking havoc on the economy from the national to the local level make comparisons to 9/11 and its after-effects or to the 2008 financial crises simply seem inapt.  This crisis feels much more existential—and to many who will be infected, it will be, quite literally.  I say that not to be callous, but to recognize that the scope of coronavirus is something that on a national level, we likely have not faced since the Great Influenza gripped America and the world from 1918 to 1919.  Bluntly, that kind of situation creates a feeling of looming menace, of fear.  Even though we are professionals and our cases still go on, our contracts and projects still demand our attention, and our clients—now, more than ever, in some cases—still need us, this is the kind of seemingly all-encompassing scenario that many of us have dreaded for years.  It is the kind of situation that psychologically can make individuals feel more isolated, cut off, and alone.

It is, in short, absolutely the time for leadership—but perhaps of a different kind.  What I’m suggesting is thoughtful leadership.

Motivating and inspiring colleagues, clients and friends from a keyboard may hardly seem heroic, but in a time of quarantine, for most of us, it may be about the only way that we will be able to (in the words of the old telephone company ad) reach out and touch someone as leaders.  An example: for those of us who lead teams, groups, offices or any collection of colleagues and clients, how helpful might it be if we simply take the time, once a week, not to convene a conference call or circulate an email or memo focusing solely on upcoming cases or work—wholly necessary though they are—but, instead, to take that time to send a message to check in with those office and team members as individuals and human beings?  Doing so can help recognize that these are not solely co-workers but people trying to navigate an incredibly stressful and harrowing time—people with children, spouses, older parents, people who are worried about the health of others, and perhaps, also worrying about the financial well-being of those loved ones, as well as that of the community groups or pro bono causes they support.

Any actions like this will not just ensure that a team remains connected during a diffused working environment, it may also help each member tamp down some of the natural fear and worry engendered by the covid-19 outbreak.  Such a simple, brief “check-in” type call or e-mail to one’s colleagues and subordinates may go far to alleviate at least a little stress, and perhaps, a little of the loneliness that even professionals can feel when isolated and dependent on solely an electronic lifeline to the outside world.

In my case, I am taking the time once a week to send my clients an e-mail featuring a photo of a steaming cup of coffee and a note to join me in a “virtual coffee hour.”  That offers my clients not just an opportunity for maybe a brief chuckle, but a chance to call me and discuss whatever is on their mind.  I plan to do this with several of my younger law colleagues who I mentor, as well.  It is a small step, but it seems to help maintain connectedness and camaraderie—and maybe serves as a sanity check too.  (And, frankly, I find that this can work equally well for my own benefit, as well as for the recipients.)

I certainly will not hazard a guess at how long we will be coping with this “new normal.”  While I pray that it may be mercifully brief, we have to be prepared that it will last more than just a few weeks.  Certainly, its consequences, both foreseeable and unforeseen, will most likely linger much longer.

In the meantime, we will likely have to try ways of inventive and inspired leadership to pull our colleagues, clients, and whoeverand whatever else we care about through this unpredictable and quite frankly, hazardous time.

The opinions and viewpoints contained in the article are those of the author and are not to be imputed to his employer or the U.S. government.

Legacy and Light, and the Lost Month of November


Willie Santana
Assistant Public Defender for the Third District

In 2019, I lost the month of November.  That loss taught me something about legacy.  Let me explain: I am the son of a paranoid schizophrenic single mother from the slums of Puerto Rico.  I spent part of my childhood being raised by my grandmother and my mother and the other half being raised by my aunt and uncle.  During the month of November, I made four trips to Orlando, because my mother and my aunt both laid in the hospital suffering.  My aunt would eventually recover, although she is still not fully recovered, but my mom died from complications of pneumonia on November 13th, 2019.

During one of those trips to Florida, I realized my mother left no worldly possessions worth keeping—except one photo she kept of me and my sister, her two children.  This is the same woman who lived through the civil rights movement and the Korean and Vietnam wars, saw man’s first steps on the moon, and witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union.  She saw the transformation of Puerto Rico’s economy from agrarian to industrial and its economic decline at the turn of the 21st century.  She gave birth to two children, moved to the mainland, and lived a full life.  Yet, this is the same woman who left nothing of material value behind.  Thinking back on her life and being confronted with that single photo forced me to consider this: surely, despite being haunted by voices only she could hear, she left a legacy in this world.  She had to have or the life she lived was meaningless.

That realization forced me to reconsider what a legacy truly is and what it truly means to leave one.  The “classical” definition involves stuff—things, property, money.  Respectfully, I have to disagree with that definition.  Accepting that definition would mean accepting my mother’s life did not matter.  And that cannot be, because I know the world is a better place for her having been in it.  I know I am a part of her legacy, as are my children; my sister, too, and her daughter.  Indeed, I do not think legacy is about material things.  No, I think legacy is about people.

In my line of work as a public defender, I often remark that while we all share one planet, we all live in different worlds.  I do not live in the same world of my clients—indigent people, often suffering from addiction and at the fringes of society, who are facing challenges that I can only imagine.  Except for the brief periods that our worlds do intersect, we live different realities. All of that brings me to this beautiful syllogism: if legacy is about people and if each person has their own world, then legacy must be about changing people’s worlds.

Using that definition, my mother left a rich legacy indeed.  She was beautiful, brilliant, and bohemian.  She loved deeply and uncompromisingly, and she was selfless when it counted.  She affected many lives intersecting with the worlds of others in her sixty-eight-year course through this planet.  She made people happy.  She made people richer.  I know she did both for me.  But more importantly, her legacy lives in me—in what I do from here on to change people’s worlds in a meaningful way.

I am the son of a paranoid-schizophrenic single mother from the slums of Puerto Rico.  That terrible start in life should have put a limit on what I could achieve.  Yet, because of the road that I have been on, and the power and privilege I acquired by my chosen profession, I have the capacity and ability to enrich my corner of the world and continue to build her legacy through my own.

My mother’s name was Luz.  Quite appropriately I think, for “luz” means light in Spanish.  Undoubtedly, her legacy is a light that will live on in me in many ways—in my fire to be a leader and in my drive to leave many worlds richer than I found them.  From my mother’s death, I now know more than ever that I have a responsibility to be a light in someone’s world.  We all do.  Because that is what leaving a legacy truly looks like and that is what leaving a legacy truly means.

Leading by Doing: Taking a Simple Idea to a Reality to Change Lives


Doug Blaze
Dean Emeritus
Professor of Law, University of Tennessee College of Law
Director, Institute for Professional Leadership

In 2009, as he participated in a Tennessee Supreme Court hearing on access to justice, Buck Lewis* noticed other lawyers in attendance were busy reading and sending emails on their Blackberries.  Buck had what seemed like a simple idea.  He thought we should find some way for lawyers to give legal advice by email to clients who could not afford lawyers.

Soon after the hearing, the Court established the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission.  Buck, as one of the ten inaugural commissioners, had a chance to make his idea a reality.  He knew that vetting of clients and lawyers would be needed, so efforts were focused on a web-based platform.  Thanks to Buck’s leadership and hard work, and the hard work of lots of other folks like the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and the IT department at Buck’s firm, Baker Donelson, who developed the software, OnlineTNJustice was launched in 2010.  Within no time, lawyers were answering questions for people in need all across Tennessee.  By August 2015, over 10,000 questions had been answered.

Soon other states became interested.  And then Buck became a member, and ultimately chair, of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.  With the support of the committee and a series of ABA presidents, OnlineTNJustice went national as ABA Free Legal Answers (ABA-FLA).

Buck never looked back.  Thirty-eight states are now part of ABA-FLA.  Three more are in the process of joining.  Both the UK and Australia have launched their own versions.  There are now over 7000 lawyer volunteers answering questions.  Most important, this month the program will mark the milestone of over 100,000 questions answered and people helped.

So please join me in thanking and congratulating Buck and all the people that helped make ABA Free Legal Answers a reality!  And please enjoy this video that celebrates this milestone.

*Buck Lewis is a senior partner with the Baker Donelson firm.  Buck is also a founder of the Institute for Professional Leadership and serves as the Larry Wilks Distinguished Practitioner in Residence.

Preparing for Leadership

Hamilton_Head Shot

Tanner Hamilton
University of Tennessee College of Law, Third-Year Student

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” In this simple quote, President Lincoln identified the importance of preparing before taking action. Countless articles and books have been written on the correlation between preparation and success, but too few address the importance of preparation on leadership. Preparation is essential to gain leadership and, once attained, to lead effectively. Consequently, a good leader should make preparation a regular practice.

First, preparation is essential to inspiring others to follow. Why? Because people are naturally inspired to follow competent people, and preparation produces competence through knowledge, expertise, and skill. To illustrate this point (as well as many others), my classmates and I were asked in a leadership class to simulate a hiring committee by selecting hypothetical applicants from fabricated resumes. Rather than follow the loudest voice in the room, I was surprised as the more prepared classmates began to sway more and more of the class to vote for their desired applicant. Although it felt natural for us to conform to the ideals of our more prepared classmates, I now see that this gravitation was not natural, but earned. These leaders had elevated their knowledge of the applicants through preparation, and the rest of us were eager, even if subconsciously, to follow their lead.

Even for those already esteemed as leaders, preparation is key. On this point, Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Leaders are responsible for creating the goals and strategies necessary for an organization to succeed. They must be prepared for inevitable mistakes and ready to alter their plans when beneficial to the organization. Finally, leaders must be prepared because leaders set an example for everyone else to follow. If a leader works hard, the rest of the organization is encouraged to work hard as well. If a leader slacks off, her entire organization has no incentive to continue. The work ethic of the team generally reflects the work ethic of its leader.

On this point, in light of the recent tragedy, I’m forced to consider the intense preparation of Kobe Bryant. Kobe is famous for his work ethic, as well as his skill. Several of his former coaches and teammates have told stories of entering the gym before practice, only to find Kobe sweating from hours of individual practice already. After team practices, Kobe was also known to ask teammates to play pick-up games to 100! Notably, he began this practice of asking teammates to stay after practice while still in high school. Kobe was absolutely relentless in his preparation, and his teammates admired him for it. Not only did Kobe’s preparation cause his teammates to look to him as a leader, but it encouraged his teammates to match his preparation, and this preparation bore fruit. While under the leadership of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers won five NBA championships– a feat, I would argue, would not have been possible without the unmatched preparation of Kobe Bryant.

Consequently, preparation is necessary both to inspire others to follow and to lead successfully. This is good news because it means that leadership is a choice. A person can choose to be prepared and will likely soon be regarded as a leader in whatever organization she is involved in. President Lincoln described this point by saying, “I will prepare and someday my chance will come.” The chance will come not simply by chance, but because of preparation; and through preparation, a good leader will be effective when the time comes. Because, as Kobe Bryant showed us through his career, the extra hours in the gym always show.