2017 Harvard Law School Commencement Address
by Sally Yates
What are the big take-aways?
Sally Yates was fired as acting Attorney General of the United States on Monday, January 30, 2017, three days after the Trump administration issued its first travel ban against immigrants from seven predominantly-Muslim countries. Yates told her story, and the lessons she drew from it, in a speech to Harvard Law School graduates last week. You can view her remarks in their entirety on YouTube.
The late-Friday announcement of the administration’s executive order had come as a complete surprise to Yates on the preceding Friday afternoon. Yates – who devoted 27 years of her career as a government lawyer in the Department of Justice (DOJ) – quickly studied the situation and became unconvinced that the travel ban was legal, truly issued for its stated purpose, or consistent with the mission of the DOJ to protect fundamental rights such as religious freedom. On that Monday the 30th, Yates defied the administration and the ban by declaring in a statement that concluded: “For as long as I am the Acting Attorney General, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the Executive Order, unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so.” Within hours, she was informed by hand-delivered letter that the president had fired her for, per a White House press release, having betrayed the DOJ.
Why do I like it?
I admire the guts, clarity of values and patriotism it required for Yates – in her temporary role as the acting leader of the United States Department of Justice – to take a stand against the new president and the executive order on a matter of constitutional principle. Yates could have resigned rather than defy the administration, “[b]ut here’s the thing,” she explained to New Yorker journalist Ryan Lizza, “resignation would have protected my own personal integrity, because I wouldn’t have been part of this, but I believed, and I still think, that I had an obligation to also protect the integrity of the Department of Justice. And that meant that DOJ doesn’t go into court on something as fundamental as religious freedom, making an argument about something that I was not convinced was grounded in truth.”
In her speech at Harvard last week, Yates described the emergency legal analysis she had been forced to conduct as “illustrative of an unexpected moment where the law and conscience intersected.” I like this advice she gave to the law school graduates, and I consider it both a definition of leadership courage as well as a stark expression of what genuine risk-taking means: “[it] “means that you have to be willing to be wrong. And that can sometimes be a lonely place to be. But I’m hoping that fear of being wrong won’t keep you from acting. Because inaction, doing nothing, or simply going along, that’s a decision, too. And it seems the times in my life that I haven’t acted that’s when I’ve regretted it the most.”
In what situations would this be useful?
I think of several of my leadership coaching clients over the years, including nonprofit executive directors and CEOs who have reported to domineering and/or dysfunctional boards of directors, when Yates observes: “Doing your job means you are not simply a reflection of someone else’s talents or opinions. You’re the person to whom a leader turns when he or she needs to hear the truth.” This is a useful, affirming and astute description of what the job of being a leader entails, regardless of where you sit in the established hierarchy.
In my view, the way Yates describes “doing your job” on your toughest and most lonely days is what psychologist Robert Kegan refers to as “self-authorship” in his theory of adult development, and it is why self-authoring adults are more effective as leaders than those who haven’t yet reached this stage. Self-authoring leaders have the ability to manage the complexity of listening to and synthesizing and learning from (often contradictory) information offered by other people, and still come to their own authentic conclusion about the right thing to do.
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
For this blog entry, I drew on an article about Yates’ speech from the New York Times, having been inspired by reading Ryan Lizza’s more in-depth biographical piece on Yates in the New Yorker. To check facts, I also consulted this CNN article from the day after Yates was fired.
For Robert Kegan’s definition of the self-authoring mind – as opposed to the earlier-stage socialized mind – and why it matters to organizations, see this short (four-and-a-half-minute) video of him discussing it on YouTube.