Trailblazing Chief Justice Reveals Her Surprising Path to the Top

Welcome to the Innovative Leadership Newsletter, brought to you by the Innovative Leadership Institute, where we bring you thought leaders and innovative ideas on leadership topics each week.

This week’s article is written by Maureen Metcalf, CEO of the Innovative Leadership Institute. It is a companion piece to her interview with Beverley McLachlin, the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, on Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future titled Leading the Court: Canada’s First Female Chief Justice, which premiered on December 12, 2023. 

Short clip from the interview:

Link to the entire interview:

Listen to the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future via Apple PodcastsTuneIn, Spotify, Amazon Music, AudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One.

What does it take to rise from humble beginnings to the highest judicial office in Canada? For trailblazer Beverley McLachlin, the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the journey was filled with unexpected turns guided by insightful mentors.

“I never dreamed of being a lawyer, much less a judge,” McLachlin remarks. Yet this small-town Alberta native ascended to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada — and became a quiet leader along the way.

Her story holds invaluable lessons for anyone aspiring to lead, whether or not the law is your calling.

McLachlin credits her unquenchable curiosity to understand the world as a skill that helped her as a judge. An early love of philosophy led her to ponder teaching, but something didn’t feel quite right. At her fiancé’s suggestion, she took a chance at law school and found her life’s passion.

Though the legal profession was dominated by men at the time, she persevered thanks to mentors who nurtured her talent and gave her a fair shot. Once appointed to the bench in her 30s, she rapidly rose through the courts.

For McLachlin, leadership isn’t about raw speeches or rhetoric. “It may be quiet leadership,” she explains. “What is it? Well, I think it’s the leadership of ideas and decision-making.”

Crafting sound rulings means deeply considering all sides of complex issues — and having the courage to take principled if unpopular stances. She’s proud of helping expand equality rights and shape new Indigenous legal frameworks during reconciliation efforts.

Vital qualities for judges also apply to leaders everywhere: seeking out different views humbly and openly before making decisions. “You have to have this ability to look at different aspects and perspectives and weigh them up,” McLachlin advises.

By sharing the inside story of her barrier-breaking legal career, McLachlin provides wisdom from a unique vantage point for anyone aspiring to lead — or make difficult decisions soundly.

McLachlin’s key insights on effective leadership elements as learned through a career in the law:

Curiosity. McLachlin’s natural curiosity and hunger to learn drove her to study philosophy in college, use that analytical thinking, and apply it to real-world situations in her law career. Stagnant thinking and a lack of interest in learning will defeat a leader before they even begin! By being continuously curious, leaders can set themselves apart as just and fair, willing to constantly take in new information (even when it may compete with their own assumptions).

Considering diverse perspectives. As a judge, McLachlin had to consider both sides of every case before her court. This means that she had to listen carefully and respectfully to each party. Like a judge, leaders must remember that every person on their team comes with their perceptions and perspectives. Though those perceptions may not always be productive, it is essential to understand them to improve your organization.

Leaving one’s preconceptions at the door. Leaders need to be able to identify their own biases and separate them from their decision-making process. Biases often lead to decisions that are ill-informed and exclusionary. Remember that to know our biases, we have to have humility and be willing to analyze ourselves.

Courage. Leaders must have the courage to follow their convictions and make unpopular decisions. Rarely will a decision ever please every party. In the case of the courts, judges are tasked with making decisions based on the law and the information they are given. Similarly, leaders have to work within certain parameters and with the knowledge they have. A key component of an innovative leader is understanding that leaders must have the courage to make a fair and just decision with the parameters they are given and the knowledge they have at the time of the decision. This also means having the courage to admit that your decision may need to change when you have more information.

Which leadership insight from McLachlin resonates most with you?

 

ABOUT THE GUEST:

Beverley McLachlin was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada from 2000 to 2017. She is the first woman to hold that position, and the longest-serving Chief Justice in Canadian history. In 2018, McLachlin became a Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest honour within the Order. She is also the #1 bestselling author of two novels, Full Disclosure and Denial, and a memoir, Truth Be Told, which won the prestigious Writers’ Trust Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the Ottawa Book Award for Nonfiction.

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To-do list:

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future on your favorite podcast platform, including Apple PodcastsTuneInSpotify, Amazon Music, AudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One. Also, stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute on LinkedIn.

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