The Indomitable RBG

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Our country lost a patriot and leader on Friday, September 18, 2020. Ruth Bader Ginsberg accomplished much in her life–I won’t recite her many legislative achievements here or the many “firsts” in her storied career or even comment on her political views. There is much written about them.

Instead, let’s look at not what she did, but how she did it. Her remarkable achievements resulted from dogged persistence in the face of many setbacks. She graduated top of her class from Columbia Law School, but was denied a place in Big Law. She wrote more dissenting opinions than majority opinions as a Supreme Court Justice. She is an inspiration because of these setbacks, because she pushed on relentlessly. The Atlantic wrote in 2019 that young women who were “starved for models of female influence, authenticity, dignity, and voice hold up an octogenarian justice as the embodiment of hope for an empowered future.” They are looking for female leaders with the confidence to be out front.

Ginsburg’s story wouldn’t be as inspiring if all the doors had opened for her. We need to remember this when we encounter our own setbacks. We need to be our own inspiration.

Yet amidst RBG’s relentless pursuit of her own ideals, she forged authentic friendships and effective working relationships with people holding tightly to opposing agendas. She led from the front, but she recognized the need to bring people along the journey in order to make an impact. Her close friendship with conservative Justice Scalia was legendary. She also had many friendships with conservative colleagues on the federal appeals court. In today’s polarized climate, Justice Ginsberg serves as an example to each of us to look for, and value, mutual interests and friendships with worthy adversaries.

The work of a successful leader, as Ruth Bader Ginsberg demonstrated over her storied career, requires more than a clear vision and strong work ethic (both of which she had). It requires the ability to craft a strategy that brings stakeholders together. In later years she explained her strategy to bring her fellow jurists along to understand that legislation designed to benefit or protect one gender could have the opposite effect. She helped them understand that equal rights benefit both (all) genders. She sought to understand her colleagues’ perspective and how they viewed the same issue differently. Then she worked to narrow the gap. She recognized that making an impact required understanding and respecting the views of others so that she could bring others along and create change.

She understood that, in order to have alliances, it requires being a “little deaf” occasionally. She said, “When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”

She also recognized and allied with fellow women leaders. Sandra Day O’Connor preceded RBG onto the bench. Justice O’Connor had already helped craft the legal opinions needed to lay the foundation for cases governing gender equality.

Justice Ginsberg described how she wanted to be remembered: “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has. To do something, as my colleague David Souter would say, ‘outside myself.’”

Now that the Indomitable RBG is no longer with us, let’s learn from her lessons of resilience, strategy, and influence-building and strive to do something “outside of ourselves.” Let’s start today.