Too smart to lead?

By On Leadership
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Juana Bordas is president of Mestiza Leadership International, a company focused on leadership and organizational change.

On the question of leadership, it is important to dig deeper -- to till the soil of a leader's early years to determine the values and experience that shaped him or her. Regardless that all the justices were educated at the most elite schools in America -- what got them there, what are their roots, what values do they hold dear?

Chief Justice John Roberts's father was a Czech immigrant who worked as a plant manager with Bethlehem Steel. Justice Antonin Scalia also comes from immigrant roots. His Italian mother taught elementary school. Justice Samuel Alito's parents were Italian immigrants as well, and Alito's father taught high school.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor's Puerto Rican father had a third-grade education and worked as a tool-and-die maker. Her mother was a telephone operator. Sotomayor grew up in the Bronxdale Housing projects. Justice Clarence Thomas is a descendant of slaves; his father was a farm worker and his mother cleaned homes.

Certainly it is a testament to the American dream that these five justices who came from such humble beginnings were able to scale to our most prestigious universities.

No doubt Yale or Harvard diplomas were credentials that got them this prestigious post. But now, as they recluse themselves from the lives of ordinary people, as they become part of one of the most elite clubs in the world, as they make decisions that will affect people who are like their parents and grandparents, will they remember the lessons of their childhood?

Kathryn Kolbert is director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College.

Imagine the hoopla if the president had nominated a woman from a less prestigious school? You can bet the naysayers would have been squealing she wasn't good enough for the job.

Martin Davidson is a professor of leadership at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a bunch of Ivy League minds coming together. High intelligence and excellent legal training are an essential part of a great Supreme Court. But we have to ask: "What else matters in rendering justice? And what great minds from other educational perspectives and training grounds can collaborate to make sure the court does not stroll along an Ivy-biased trail of legal thinking?" As the court ruled in 2003, diversity can be and is often a valid criterion upon which people can be selected for a position if that diversity is essential to creating the best results. Shouldn't we apply this logic to the court itself?

Scott DeRue is a management professor at the University of Michigan.

There is clear evidence that our place in elite social networks explains our social status and mobility. In fact, research even shows that business executives enter into strategic partnerships and alliances with other companies, in part, based on whether the partnering executives attended the same undergraduate institution. Thus, Ivy Leaguers are not just paying for an education, they are paying for entry into a social network that is powerful and global.

But again, the issue is not where did she go to school or who does she know. Is she competent? Does she complement the existing justices? Does she have the principles and perspective necessary to make decisions that will affect a nation? Only time will tell.

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant.

The question about intelligence in public service leadership is not just about smarts; it is about access.

While it is true that every member of the Supreme Court, if Kagan is confirmed, will be a product of an Ivy League education, none comes from privileged backgrounds. Most justices come from middle-class backgrounds, with the exception of Justice Clarence Thomas, who grew up without any material advantages. Therefore, each justice demonstrate the benefits of meritocracy; each earned the right to be considered for higher education and the high court by virtue of doing well first in school and later in the legal profession. Smarts helped, but it was not the deciding factor; access to opportunity was.

Sean Holiday is one of 12 Southern California Coros fellows engaged in a graduate-level leadership training program.

The value of diversity is not captured in a photograph; it is realized when different perspectives are brought to the table that were shaped by varying experiences. To have almost 90 percent of the justices come from just two schools limits the full expression of what diversity should really mean.

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