Through the Looking Glass—Observations from Five Years Out: Leadership

The pressure of being the first to do something different or new creates high expectations on the person going “first.” Whether intentional or not, the first person to succeed often becomes a leader. For me, successfully embracing a new leadership role depended on finding inspiration in the achievements of another leader, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Monica Márquez.

Making “It” Work
In September 2011, my husband and I learned we were pregnant. I was elated, yet anxious. I was then a third-year associate and had seen many women leave private practice because they could not make “it” work.

I wanted to make it work, but I was worried the roles of mother and lawyer could not co-exist. By the time our son was born in April 2012, I made a decision: I wanted to return on a reduced-hours schedule, which my firm offered, and make “it”—success where others had doubts—work.

There were no associates—female or otherwise—working reduced hours at the time. Once my request to do so was approved, I realized the gravity of my decision. How I managed this new schedule, and how it was perceived within the firm, would be a barometer for others who wanted to do the same.

How the reduced-hours schedule played out is a topic for another post. What I realized during that time, however, is equally important. While I initially sought the schedule for personal reasons (to manage my personal and professional obligations), I soon realized that I welcomed the chance to inspire others that “it” could be done.

For the next year and a half, my full-time goal was to make the reduced-hours plan work. About six months in, I was frustrated and exhausted—it was hard work. I felt like a hamster on a wheel, hardly an inspirational figure. There were days I felt like I could not get anything accomplished.  There were others when I was so exhausted from chasing a one-year-old all day, and then working another five hours at night to meet a deadline, that I did not think I could go on.

Looking To Others For Inspiration
One particularly exhausting day, I decided it was time to seek inspiration. I am blessed with knowing many successful women who inspire me. Among them is Justice Monica Márquez of the Colorado Supreme Court. I initially met Justice Márquez through an Inn of Court and have sought her guidance at several key points in my career. She is the first Latina appointed to that court, and in addition to being one of the youngest justices ever to serve, she is also openly gay. She has accomplished her “it,” and she is a leader because she inspires others to reach for similar successes. And I sorely needed some of her inspiration.

I shared my frustrations with Justice Márquez over coffee. In retrospect, they all centered around one theme: I was struggling to manage my career in general, much less in a reduced-hours role. She listened, questioned, and helped me to understand two things. First, there was value—for me personally and, on a larger scale, professionally—for making the reduced-hours plan work. Second, the frustrations I had were not the result of my failures, but rather the challenges (and accompanying exhaustion) that come with being a “first.” After I thanked her profusely for her guidance, she requested one thing: that I, someday, share a cup of coffee with someone looking for similar inspiration.

I kept going, guided by the knowledge that others had experienced similar frustrations and ultimately conquered them. Slowly, I began to feel more successful and confident. By the conclusion of my reduced-hours plan nearly a year later, I had argued before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and third-chaired a two-and-a-half-week jury trial. I had also watched my son take his first steps and heard his first words. By those markers I was able to see I had actually succeeded and made “it” happen.

Shortly after returning to a full-time schedule, I received an email from a female colleague. She shared that my success had inspired her on a similar path. She wanted to discuss how to make “it” work. With Justice Márquez’s words ever present in my mind, I invited the colleague to share a cup of coffee. In that moment, I realized that my success was not exclusively mine, and that I had achieved my secondary goal of inspiring others that “it” could be done. I also realized then that my success had come with a responsibility: to raise up other women and help them succeed, as Justice Márquez had done for me.

So how do we manage this responsibility and own our roles as leaders?

It Is Not What You Do, But Why You Do It
Our successes as women make us leaders to others—often to those we have not met. For Justice Márquez, leadership comes down to one thing: inspiring others to come along. “Leadership is emotional, not rational. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”*  In her experience, she found her self-described inclusive leadership style was effective because people trusted she understood where they were coming from. This helped her to become successful, and, by traditional measures, powerful.

She recognizes that the mere fact that she has succeeded is often enough to inspire others, like me, to success. But with that power comes intense scrutiny. “It is naïve to pretend that all eyes are not on you as a first. You are held to a higher standard, and there is pressure. Pressure that if you fail, you fail for everyone else out there,” she said. But at the end of the day, she believes, someone has to be a “first”—someone has to get there.

Justice Márquez’s philosophy captures the importance of leadership for women attorneys. Five years out, I realize my successes are not mine alone; they reflect the efforts and encouragement of those who have gone before, and they inspire and motivate those who will come next. I did not initially request a reduced-hours schedule to serve as an example to others; but once I became one, I needed to embrace, rather than run from, that role.

By embracing what are often challenging and exhausting “firsts,” we help each other find “it”—success in the absence of precedent— and succeed amid the many challenges inherent in the practice of law. We cannot do that alone. We should freely seek inspiration to pursue “it” over a cup of coffee and, just as freely, offer inspiration to those who seek a cup of coffee from us. Our success is collective, and the more “firsts” we inspire, the more “nexts” we bring with us. 

*Justice Márquez attributes this observation to Simon Sinek’s “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” Filmed September 2009, TEDx Puget Sound

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