12 Self-Leadership Lessons from a US Supreme Court Justice

As very much a non-lawyer, and non-American, I’ve always admired Clarence Thomas – the United States Supreme Court Associate – from afar.

Thomas, now 70 years of age, has spent almost three decades in the Supreme Court. His ascension to this position, despite a bitter early-1990s confirmation hearing, reveals very little flamboyance but a strong commitment to humility, discipline and building skills.

Indeed, there were many less public times, early in Thomas’s career, where things amounted to make or break. Rising from genuine poverty and segregation he committed to finishing a formal education, and shedding his enchantment with activism before gaining the public profile that led to his nomination.

I sense Thomas has, over four decades in public life, generated a deep respect not only with Supreme Court colleagues but even among critics for his ability to construct a philosophical framework to matters of disagreement – something perhaps more in need than ever.

Thomas’s broad lessons crystallise into some key headline points – real improvement means zero shortcuts but a steady long-run commitment to getting better, a focus on principles and, at times of doubt, reminding one’s self of one’s good work.

Here are some lessons I thought I’d share, based on studying Thomas’s memoir – My Grandfather’s Son and listening to his many speeches and interviews.

1. Sink or swim

This is how Thomas described approaching challenges during his early professional years. Owning “only two dress shirts”, he recalls, and stumbling toward the tail end of an unhappy marriage, it was a tough and lonely time that offered more opportunities to give in than march on in his professional life. But when asked in an interview on how he coped, Thomas simply replied that it was ‘sink or swim’.

It has always stuck with me. We’ve all been in overloaded situations or where throwing in the towel is a much easier option than persisting. While ‘sink or swim’ is perhaps too simple it is, in reality, what it comes down to. And it prompts another piece of advice from the late self-help guru Jim Rohn – “don’t ask for less problems,” said Rohn, “ask for more skills.”

2. You’re obligated not to despair

Chances are your parents, or your grandparents, had it much worse than you. Thomas’s grandfather – who he called “the greatest man I have ever known” – would start work at 4am each day, finding little excuses and placing “his faith in his own unaided effort – the one factor in his life he could control”.

His firm instruction to Thomas and his brother Myers, so they could avoid a fate of grinding manual labour, was to get an education so they could get a “suit and tie job”. A sense of gratitude of past hurdles, even in the face of your current woes, can go a long way.

3. Appreciate the struggle

While growing professionally Thomas discovered, and kept close to him, the famous poem by the late poet Robert Frost.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Again – so simple. Yet so important.

4. Beware false prophets

You don’t need to encounter segregation to appreciate that resentment doesn’t build capabilities. Nor does it set you up for genuine personal growth or long-run success.

Thomas began his life drawn into victimhood, resentment and the power of activism. “The beast of rage kept on gnawing at my soul,” he wrote of his college years:

“but the more I saw of radicalism, the more I doubted that it had any answers to offer me, especially after a Black Panther from Boston came to Holy Cross to meet with a group of black students. He treated us like children, telling us we were wasting our time at school and that the only thing ‘the man’ understood was a gun.”

“An education is meaningless,” he adds, “unless it equips students to have a better life.”

5. Honesty and what’s right

As an assistant attorney-general to Missouri’s John Danforth, Thomas said he learned two key lessons. The first was that “honesty is what you do when no one is looking”. And the second far more important lesson is that “my needs, however great they might be, didn’t convert wrong to right or bad to good.” The latter, he reflects, was most important to his personal ethical development.

6. Retain ‘totems of good work’

This is a process that many experts on ‘deliberate practice’ recommend – recording a time when you’ve achieved something of difficulty. Thomas did this as a young professional in Missouri when a St Louis judge wrote him a small note of thanks observing his skills. “I put it in the middle drawer of my desk,” writes Thomas, “taking it out whenever my spirts needed a boost. In the years to come I would carry it with me from job to job, like an heirloom, rereading it on the dark days when I was racked by self-doubt.”

7. Merit often doesn’t prevail

Like many lawyers, Thomas spent time in the private sector and worked for the chemical company Monsanto. Yet it was here where he first began to discover that the organisation didn’t entirely reward the elements of individualism. “I had come to Monsanto looking for success, but found that personal drive and motivation weren’t always rewarded in so large and cumbersome an organization.” Many of us can appreciate such a sentiment in the places we work. But this should never discount personal growth and development. And it may sensibly pay, if you feel like your merit isn’t getting you anywhere, to find a place where it does.

8. Preparing to win

In multiple places in his autobiography Thomas quotes the great basketball coach Bobby Knight, who notes that “Everybody has a will to win. What’s far more important is having the will to prepare to win.”

I take two bits of advice from this. The first is the importance in the journey and not always the destination or outcome. Second, there is a great deal of dignity in quietly working on one’s self rather than winning prizes or public adulation.

9. Work on one’s self

As above, there is a great deal of dignity in self-leadership. Thomas, growing up in the 1950s, experienced genuine segregation. But this didn’t deter his path to self-leadership, especially when it came to growth, education and development. “I think segregation is bad,” he writes, “I think it’s wrong… but you don’t need to sit next to a white person to learn how to read and write.”

10. Keep a hinterland

Thomas began to gain a public profile when he was appointed by president Ronald Reagan to head up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. With a large budget, and thousands of employees, it was a significant but challenging career win.

Yet he also noted the downtime needed to “break free from the mind-numbing effects of the daily grind of running a government agency.” In Thomas’s case a hinterland was, among other activities, time spent writing “op-ed pieces, book reviews, and longer articles.”

Granted, this isn’t what some would consider ‘down time’! But we all have things that can help us break free from the grind.

11. What’s your role?

In 1996, as a relatively new Supreme Court Justice, Thomas revealed that the best piece of advice he ever received was to ask himself “What is my role in this case – as a judge, not as a politician, a citizen, or a policy maker?”.

Indeed, it is an unusual level of discipline for a public figure involved in constant matters of disagreement. But it has been critical to his approach – one that we can all ask ourselves in the professional roles we play.

12. Be a participant in a free society

In my view one of the truly great American speeches of recent times is Thomas’s 2016 Hillsdale College Commencement Address. He notes not so much his own difficulties but the arduous steps taken by his grandfather and past generations. He records the black Americans who, after fighting in World War Two, returned to indignity and “the contradiction of segregation”.

But the advice he passes on is not a message of cynicism but to not “discard what is precious along with what is tainted”. He said that these Americans and many others – “abiding, hardworking, and disciplined” – still did their best to ensure they “discharged their responsibilities to their families and neighbors as best they could”.

Indeed, there is so much in self-leadership that, ultimately, can lead to an enriched society.

Image Source: Mark Wilson/Getty at NPR

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