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Five Leadership Lessons from My Mentor, Judge Leon Higginbotham

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

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The late A. Leon Higginbotham was many things. He was a passionate civil rights advocate, and a man of many firsts: the first African-American Federal Trade Commissioner, the first African-American U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a lawyer in the first African-American law firm in Philadelphia, a mediator in the first inter-racial elections in post-apartheid South Africa, the first in his family to attend college, and the first African-American male to integrate Antioch College in 1944. He was an advisor to both President Lyndon Johnson and President Bill Clinton, a trustee of both the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University, and the proud recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was also my mentor and friend.

I had the exceptional privilege of working closely with Judge Higginbotham, both as a clerk and as his assistant in writing In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process 1: The Colonial Period. Over an unfathomable number of hours over several decades, I had the opportunity to learn from his hard-won experience and incisive wisdom. It would take several volumes to capture the breadth and depth of his leadership and character lessons he imparted to me, but there are five that have indelibly shaped my approach to leadership and service. I hope you find them as influential as I do.

1. Stories make connections. Never be afraid to share yours.

Judge Higginbotham believed in the power of stories. His personal story was compelling: the son of a laborer and the product of segregated schooling in Trenton, New Jersey who would break barriers at Purdue University, Antioch College, and Yale University, ascend to the greatest political and judicial heights, and leave a proud legacy of civil rights activism. But Judge Higginbotham was not merely interested in his own story, as inspiring as it was. He was interested in the stories of others, and the power of those stories to build understanding and empathy. He would use stories to humanize, to clarify, to distill a point to its truest essence. Stories are how leaders communicate—and more importantly, it’s how audiences learn.

2. Facts matter. So does judgement.

The Judge’s first lesson leads directly into this second one. When I was his clerk, Judge Higginbotham and I were discussing an issue—though the specifics escape me today—that I argued should be resolved in the most logic-based method available: statistical analysis. While the Judge loved statistics, he remained skeptical about their application in this instance. After some further discussion, he finally turned to me and said, "Look, Mike, the model may seem right, but you have to take this statistical approach with a grain of salt. If I thought all statistics were always determinative, I would still be living in Trenton." In that moment, it was clear: Facts, statistics, and formulae absolutely have a place in determining truth, but they cannot be understood without consideration of humanity.

3. Don’t hesitate to advocate.

The Judge began his collegiate career at Purdue, where he made the debate team. As the Judge later recounted in his speech “The Dream with Its Back Against the Wall,” his debate coach advised the team, “When you’re debating, be firm, speak loud, and even if you don’t believe the proposition, act as if you do.” But that advice was given a cruel acid test when the team arrived at a hotel for a debate tournament, and the manager told young Judge Higginbotham that—as a Black man—he couldn’t stay there. His debate coach did not challenge the manager—he did not speak firmly or loudly, and the Judge spent the night in a run-down YMCA while his teammates enjoyed the comfort of the hotel. It was one of too many instances at Purdue that soured Judge Higginbotham on his experience there—and led to his departure to Antioch College. How often do we have the choice to confront injustice, but instead acquiesce to avoid making a scene? How many people are counting us in those moments to step up and do the right thing? As leaders—particularly leaders who work with young adults—we have a responsibility speak up, loudly and firmly, when faced with unconscionable behavior.

4. Surround yourself with people who balance shared vision and diverse experience.

The Judge genuinely believed in the importance of mentorship; he understood it to leave a lasting legacy and continue one’s vision in a way that would far surpass a single lifetime. Unsurprisingly, out of the hundreds of applications that came in for clerkships, he sought a high level of technical, legal proficiency—I often found myself dazzled by the intellects of my colleagues. But more than talent alone, the Judge sought to surround himself with people who shared his passion for the betterment of society, and who also challenged his thinking. The ability to see the world differently, and to imagine its potential, was highly prized because it encouraged creativity and multiplied possibilities. Yet while Judge Higginbotham’s mentees were united by their vision for a brighter future, they came from every possible background and held a wide range of interests and beliefs. By fostering an environment where a multiplicity of experiences and ideas came together to work towards a greater goal, Judge Higginbotham ignited sparks of talent, demonstrating that diversity makes bright ideas brighter.

5. Success is inclusive.

Judge Higginbotham’s favorite poem, Dream of Freedom by Langston Hughes, ends with a line I think of often: “This dream today embattled/With its back against the wall--/To save the dream for one/It must be saved for All.” Despite his personal experiences with racism and discrimination, despite the contentious nature of the legal issues he addressed, the Judge was always inclusive and positive. He believed in coalitions, in collaboration, and in compassion. He understood that our society—the one he continually fought to improve—can only advance if we consider all our fellow citizens and seek ways to make the American dream accessible to all.

Signature of Mike Fitts