Knowing the Role of your Organization and the Strength of Neutrality – Leading As Lawyers

Knowing the Role of your Organization and the Strength of Neutrality – Leading As Lawyers

It is the role of leaders to ensure that the path they, and those who follow, are on is not misguided, incomplete, or constructed on false assumptions.

Isabelle Thibault

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2024

As we reflect on the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, it is apparent that watershed moments offer many lessons.  This post offers a perspective informed in part by leading in the formidable wake of the Dobbs decision.

If I asked you to think about neutrality, you may think of Switzerland, for which the choice of neutrality has been a remarkable foreign policy decision for years. Despite being surrounded by conflicting international powers, Switzerland has managed to stay out of direct involvement in wars and conflicts, and it isn’t because neutrality is easy. Bringing the concept in from a macro level to a narrower field, a parallel truth emerges: even within our own communities and as it relates to the roles of our institutions, neutrality is hard to establish and maintain.

This is a key issue for leaders everywhere, especially as the political climate becomes increasingly polarized. Regardless of the nature of your organization (or company or firm or the like), those you represent or cater to are being pulled in various directions and will look to you to see where you, and the organization, stand. In these situations, complete knowledge of the role and purpose of your organization is essential, and sometimes neutrality may be the best option. The role of the organization determines the function is performs. The purpose of the organization determines why it is performing that function.  

 When thinking about the role and purpose of your organization, you may want to consider the answers to the following series of questions.

  • Who does your organization represent and does the membership share a common viewpoint?
  • Are there other organizations dedicated to what you do?
  • Are there other organizations that cater to your audience?
  • Will certain courses of action alienate a sector of your audience or membership and, if so, is taking such action necessary?
  • How is your organization organized?
  • With whom or what is the organization affiliated?
  • Is the organization’s mission to further education in a specific area or focus on a particular academic approach to issues?
  • Will taking a stance cause the organization’s members to feel outcasted or misaligned?

My point in offering these considerations for reflection is to help a leader best determine whether or how to take sides on political or divisive issues that may threaten the whole of the organization.  Staying true to the essential role and purpose of the organization, acknowledging the diversity of the membership and the organization’s affiliations, and prioritizing purpose and unity will help point the leader in the right direction.

Claiming neutrality is not easy, and I do not intend to label this as any sort of loophole—a way for a leader or an organization to avoid making a hard choice to take a side in honor of its role and purpose. Neutrality is not, and has never been, a weak stance.  In fact, it may be the stance that requires the most strength. In order to effectively claim and fulfill the promise of neutrality, a leader must be willing and able to put aside their own beliefs, be open to the perspectives of both sides, and put in a continuous effort to maintain balance. Neutrality bears the incredible burdens of self-doubt and consistent self-regulation and awareness.  It requires nothing less than a full and complete commitment to role and purpose and a focus sharp enough to see through all the distractions and issues that attempt to pull the leader into alignment with a narrow, more partisan, way of thinking. Being sure of the organization’s role and purpose and the function of the leader in that context can help guard against self-doubt and provides a strong base from which the leader can regulate themself and be aware.

An inherent obstacle in neutrality is finding a way to make a meaningful statement and have meaningful conversations without taking a side and without saying nothing. By “saying nothing,” I do not mean staying silent. I mean speaking empty words or making overly vague statements that do not express any real empathy for the deeply personal feelings that attach to certain divisive issues. Once people find your words as a leader to be meaningless or once they start to feel like you are just going through the motions, you’ve lost them.

For example, I had the honor of leading an organization for women that was affiliated with the law school. The role of the organization was to provide support, information, and resources to women as a part of the law school for the purpose of encouraging women to be involved, informed, and able to address their concerns. Right after my election, the Dobbs decision came out and it put me in the difficult position of having to balance legal analysis and the facts of the case with the conflicting views and feelings of the organization’s membership. On one hand, we are part of a law school, and our mission includes keeping our members informed about the opinion and the fact that, by Supreme Court ruling, there is no constitutional right to an abortion. On the other hand, some of the organization’s members wanted to celebrate the Court’s holding as a win for the right to life. And on yet another hand, some of the organization’s members were upset with the outcome and worried about the ramifications. At the time, the organization was the only one expressly representing women in the law school. We were interested in maintaining good relationships with other student organizations, we wanted to offer resources and information, and we did not want to alienate anyone because we believed every woman should have a place where they belong. In such a case, focusing on the legal process that led to the decisions and the effects flowing from the decision addressed the issue, informed our membership, and stayed true to the organization’s role and purpose.

It is not the role of an organization to tell members how to feel or what to think, and it is not the role of the organizational leader either. The leader’s role is to carry out the mission of the organization. It is important to make sure the members know you are not pushing aside their views but, instead, focusing on a different aspect of the contested matter that is more in line with the role and purpose of the organization. For example, a leader might encourage discussion of the issues and help members to stay informed.

Of course, neutrality does not mean an organization or its leader cannot provide support. Offering access to resources, making members aware of relevant events, and providing safe spaces for conversation may also be beneficial measures that reinforce a leader’s commitment to the members while acknowledging divisions among the membership. But if all of the support provided by a leader leans one way—to those only taking one perspective on the divisive question—then the leader is no longer neutral.  Abandoning neutrality may render previous statements meaningless and destroy trust.

Again, I am not saying any of this is easy. But neutrality can be necessary to the long-term health and vibrancy of the organization. Limiting oneself to one perspective as the leader of a diverse organization tends to lead to bandwagon activism, groupthink, and the false belief that one is on the “right” side merely because one is only speaking to those in agreeance.  Limiting oneself to one perspective denies an individual and those involved the ability to see the whole picture. It is the role of leaders to ensure that the path they, and those who follow, are on is not misguided, incomplete, or constructed on false assumptions.

In the face of adversity, a strong leader stays true to their organizational responsibilities and their principles. Claiming neutrality is not indicative of a great or poor organizational leadership on its own, and those who think otherwise are missing an essential piece to the analysis: the role and purpose of the organization and the obligations of the leader.

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