Too smart to lead?

May 19th, 2010

In a recent Washington Post “On Leadership” the question was raised regarding Elena Kagan’s nomination to teh Supreme Court and the prospect of an “all-Ivy” bench. Is it a good idea for any institution, or any sector of society, to rely so heavily on a handful of elite universities to educate and train its leaders?

If you look at the possible “all-Ivy” complexion of an emerging Supreme Court, it’s easy to find comfort in the fact that this could be a “dream team” aggregation of legal smarts that can only benefit the country.  After all, having the brightest and the best at the helm is the ultimate goal in any meritocracy, so it’s hard to argue that we should have less qualified people on the bench.

The problem with this picture is that in an increasingly complex world, we don’t question the definition of “best” enough.   We look for single indicators of excellence—IQ, or years of experience, or law school education—and we act as though if we just pick enough people with high marks on a given one, we will have satisfied the objective of getting the best.

If only it were that easy.

In jobs as important and complex as the post of Supreme Court Justice, there can be no single indicator that captures “best.”  We must consider a variety of factors in assembling the best team of justices, and one of those factors has to be the diversity of perspectives that the team collectively produces.  The problem with an all-Ivy lineup is that in a domain in which diverse perspectives are critically important in creating just results, we foment all sorts of biases by not being more intentional in using diversity to create checks and balances in how the Court operates.

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?  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 in two cases dealing with admissions practices in higher education, 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?

I don’t have anything against folks from the Ivy League.  Some of my best friends went to school there. And I don’t know if the addition of Elena Kagan will complete an Ivy dream team or not.  But I know from my research and professional experience that we are not good at seeing complexity in selection decisions like this.  We want to believe that if we have one clear and transparent indicator of performance, like Ivy League education, then we can achieve great results.  But justice won’t come from a homogeneous set of legal minds on the Supreme Court.  It will only come from the skillful mixing of diverse ideas and perspectives.

5 Responses to “Too smart to lead?”

  1. Connie Glover says:

    I would ask the same question and give your same response about MBAs on Wall Street and in Corporate America. Does the higher education degree alone automatically qualify someone as “the best” person to lead our companies, to manage our money, and to lead us through crises? I think not. Corporate America seems to be very focused on the MBA at the end of someone’s name, and frequently disregards those that have managed, led, inspired, taught, and made positive change over the course of (sometimes) decades. Many have an education, albeit not by the mainstream (or expensive) process. While I respect the benefits of higher education, I ditto your comment, “Ivy is good, but we need more.”

  2. Martin Davidson says:

    I agree completely, Connie. I think the thing that gets in the way is that it takes more energy, resources, and frankly, creativity to really seek out the best people. That’s why we get lazy and try to outsource the task by relying on institutions like the Ivy schools to put a sort out talent. We have to find a way both to take advantage of the great talent that comes to those kinds of places AND to spread out feelers to find the great talent in other places.

  3. Professor, great post. However I don’t feel Ivy League folks dominate the Court because they went to Ivy League schools. I believe they dominate the Court because those that attend Ivy League schools are more likely to receive the education, training, clerkships, and access to other opportunities that judicial nominees are expected to have. So basically one thing feeds another.

  4. Mark Glover says:

    I agree as well, Connie. I find that the greatest accomplishments or ideas come from people that you least expect it from and those who are usually not asked at all. After working in industry I have figured out that creative thinking and forward motion is best pursued with a diverse cross section of people with all levels of education and experiences.

  5. Joe Steele says:

    While I am a double Harvard degree holder (AB and MBA), I agree that any recruitment process needs to require that the net be thrown as wide as possible when considering candidates for any position, and of course for the U.S. Supreme Court. This is the role of leadership to insist that any search process be done in an inclusive fashion, and also to determine guidelines for generating the “short list” which evidences that at least non-traditional candidates were considered. De facto recruiting processes continue to rely on friends and family, and are ultimately influenced by the hiring committee’s comfort zone.

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