Editor’s note: At a recent judge advocate retirement, the Chief Judge of the Department of the Navy, Capt. Chris Reismeier, gave a keynote address. The following is an adaptation of that speech, which gives a JAG Corps perspective of leadership from the bench.
I’ve maintained for years that we tend to focus on leadership as a trait. We even have a block on our fitness reports that evaluates us on this trait. I’ve always looked at leadership as more of a privilege that a leader has to earn every day. You’re not a leader if no one follows. You’re a loner. True leaders fall into three categories. There are leaders you follow because you have to, leaders you follow because you want to, and leaders you will follow anywhere.
Winston Churchill once said that “success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Judges hold counsel accountable, but also hold out encouragement to them that all they need to do is continue to grow, learn, improve, and perform. A judge’s impact on an organization can be seen not from his or her own accomplishment but through the eyes of the counsel they mentor and lead. Winston Churchill also said that “it is not enough that we do our best; sometimes, we must do what is required.” That quotation should be motivation to our judges. Our judges should push counsel to meet the mission, to excel, to achieve more than what counsel thought they could do before the judge elevated the practice. Our judges should be honest in their assessments, pointing out what counsel can do better and how to do it. Firm and fair, our judges should set expectations, hold people to them, but help them meet and exceed the standards.
Being a great leader isn’t about you; it’s about your ability to help others be better. Our judges earn the privilege of leadership. People should follow them because they want to. Counsel should want to achieve the performance levels our judges set for them. They should want to follow our judges wherever they will lead because they know our judges will take them further than they will ever get on their own. Our value as leaders can most be seen, not our own legal work, our staff work, our judicial writings, or our awards… it’s in the eyes of those who stand before us when we take the bench. Awards are earned with the help of those you lead, and achievements, no matter how great, are often the results of the vagaries of opportunities and assignments you don’t control.
But there is one thing that each officer can claim to be of his own doing. The loyalty of those you lead doesn’t happen without earning the privilege of leadership. When we retire as a judge, we should strive to leave with something we’ve earned completely. We should leave with a legacy found in the trial practitioners we’ve molded along the way. We should strive to leave with the loyalty earned by fair, firm and dedicated commitment to improving everyone and everything we touched. If you do that, you truly will be great.