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What Do Sonia Sotomayor, John Roberts and Mr. Spock Have in Common?

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The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor has sparked an interesting public discussion on the place of empathy in the justice system. As usual, there are people lining up on the left and the right to argue for or against empathy playing a role in forming the opinions of a judge.

When people are engaged in a debate on a word, I think it's usually a good idea to first look up the definition of that word. Here's how Dictionary.com defines empathy:

"the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another."

Burt Solomon, in an insightful piece in the Washington Post, points out that the life experience of Supreme Court justices has always influenced their opinions. He provides a number of interesting historical examples which are summarized by this observation from the late Justice Felix Frankfurter:

"The words of the Constitution are so unrestricted by their intrinsic meaning or by their history or by tradition or by prior decisions that they leave the individual justice free, if indeed they do not compel him, to gather meaning not from reading the Constitution but from reading life."

Just as her experience of growing up poor in a Bronx project shaped the perspective of Judge Sotomayor, the experience of growing up as the son of a corporate executive has shaped the perspective of Chief Justice John Roberts. They both have empathy or "intellectual identification" with others; it's just that their empathy is informed by different life experiences. As Solomon points out in his article, you can see their different experiences at play in their opinions. I'd argue that neither perspective is good or bad, they just are.

And that brings me to a point about all leaders whether or not they find themselves on the U.S. Supreme Court. We bring our life experience, our empathy, our intellectual identification with us. Our decisions and actions are influenced by the unique life experience and perspective we bring to the leadership role. Let's not kid ourselves that they're not. The best we and our followers can hope for is that we as leaders recognize this. When we recognize that we're never truly objective, we stand a much better chance of listening to and paying attention to all of the stakeholders in a given situation.

So as I was thinking about this post, I tried to come up with a leader who actually could be truly objective. The best I could do was Mr. Spock. But, as you'll know if you've seen the new Star Trek movie, not even Spock makes decisions based purely on objective logic. That darn human part of his heritage keeps getting in the way. As it is with Spock, so it is with us. Live long and prosper.

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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