“She’s the closest thing to a superhero I know,” women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem says at the start of the film “R.B.G.”. Despite her tiny stature, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has become a larger-than-life-figure in recent years. She has been given a hip-hop moniker—the Notorious R.B.G.—that is featured on everything from coffee mugs to tee-shirts. She has become a recurring character on Saturday Night Live. She is a genuine icon.
However, if you study her life closely, there is no mystery or magic to her rise to the top of the legal profession. She got where she is today through quiet persistence and an unwavering commitment to making a difference in the world.
I can think of no better way to end Women’s History Month than to reflect on some key takeaways from the life of an inspired and inspiring individual who was the second woman to be named to the United States Supreme Court.
1. Be strategic
Make no mistake about it, Ginsberg had an ambitious agenda to take on sexism and discrimination in the law and society at large. Her years in law school opened her eyes to what she was up against. The dean of the Harvard Law School invited all of the first-year women to a “lady’s dinner” and asked each one of them what they were doing taking a seat that could be occupied by a man.
Later, as one of the first lawyers chosen to participate in the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she was extremely picky about which cases she decided to take. She looked for strategic cases that would translate into a meaningful, lasting change in the law.
Similarly, business leaders should be picky and strategic when recruiting an executive team, working with collaborative partners, or acquiring companies. We can relate this to the Pareto Principle, which holds that we get 80% of our results from 20% of our efforts. Every choice we make involves a commitment of energy. We want that energy to yield optimal results.
As my former boss and mentor Steve Jobs put it: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”
2. Be focused
Focus is about being selective and strategic. It is also about filtering out distraction and creating an environment where we can commit fully to the task before us. Ginsberg has been a master of this art, sometimes under difficult circumstances.
While she was a third-year law student and already caring for a two-year-old daughter, Ginsberg’s husband fell ill with cancer. She recalls working wholeheartedly on her studies during long days at school, and then coming home and turning her full attention to her daughter and husband. Once her daughter was in bed, she worked late into the night not only on her studies, but also taking the time to type up class notes for her husband, also a law student.
In today’s collaborative and digitally-driven business environment, we must navigate a steady stream of communications and meetings as well as other demands on our attention. It can take enormous discipline to carve out distraction-free blocks of time.
Focus is not just about work and professional achievement. My goal as an executive wellness coach is to help my clients be fully engaged in every aspect of their lives. Ginsberg is passionate about opera and talks about how the rest of the world fades into the background when she is at a performance. She is not thinking about a case, only what is before her in the present moment.
3. Take the long view
As an advocate for gender equality under the law, Ginsberg did not try to overturn the status quo overnight. The first case she argued before the Supreme Court, about gender discrimination in military benefits, was seen as a relatively narrow matter. However, Ginsberg took the occasion to broadly criticize the prevalence of gender-based assumptions in the law.
Essentially, Ginsberg was making one massive argument—for total gender equality under the law—out of a series of smaller debates. A law school classmate commented that observing her make this argument, case by case, was like “watching someone knit a sweater.” She prevailed in five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court.
All too often in today’s business world, executives fall prey to short-term thinking. They worry about quarterly returns and about whether the company’s stock is up, at the expense of building long-term value.
I work to help my clients keep an eye on the long view. Sometimes an over-stressed executive needs an independent sounding board in order to see the forest from the trees. Purpose is critical if we want to think clearly about long-term strategy. When we have an authentic mission and are passionate about it, we will be in it for the long haul.
4. Find common ground
Although she holds strong opinions, Ginsberg also prizes good manners and the tradition of collegiality that is a crucial part of the judicial culture. For most of her years on the Court, she has been a consensus-builder.
Her unlikely friendship with ideological opposite Antonin Scalia is evidence of her skill at finding common ground. The two shared a love for opera and attended performances together.
Business leaders need to learn to find common ground amongst their colleagues. In a world ruled by volatility and uncertainty, your competitor today could be your partner tomorrow. You must learn to build bridges and not burn them. The ability to create rapport and connection with other strong personalities, often in high-pressure situations, is characteristic of the greatest and most influential leaders.
Setbacks and disappointments are inevitable. We cannot control unforeseen difficulties, only our response to them.
After helping her husband through a cancer scare early in life, Ginsberg has weathered her own serious health issues over the past 20 years. She was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1999. Soon after finishing her chemotherapy treatment, she sought out the physical trainer she still trains with today. She beat cancer a second time 10 years later. At the age of 86, she powers her way through workouts that would put a person half her age to shame.
These qualities all work to feed and support one another. When we are focused and strategic in service to a long-term vision, we can persist and meet tough challenges. When we maintain grace and humor and are always on the look for opportunities to create connection, we ensure that we will have others to share both our victories and our struggles.
Like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, we can both flourish and do good at the same time.