“American government and business are suffering from a near breakdown in their capacity creatively and collaboratively to effect policies to address the most pressing of the nation’s problems.  Levels of trust in and approval of leaders are at all-time lows.”  So writes Barbara Kellerman in The End of Leadership.  She points out that organizations have flattened, that command and control leadership no longer works, if it ever did, and that leadership is universally condemned across all sectors of our society.  So is leadership dead?

When 58 public defense leaders from Seattle to Miami/Dade gathered for three days in late June for NAPD’s first Executive Leadership Institute, I read them that quote, and asked that particular question. 

Leadership is essential in public defense organizations.  Whether leadership is dead in business or government, it is absolutely essential in public defense organizations.  The number of our clients in prisons around the country hovers above 2.2 million, up from only 300,000 three decades ago.  Public defense leaders are “co-managers of the criminal justice system,” called upon to engage in criminal justice reform and more specifically to reduce mass incarceration.  And there were leaders present who exemplified the need for robust, client-centered leadership. Leadership was required by Michele Purvis-Harris in Hinds County, Mississippi when a judge decided to “kick out” one of her lawyers, and then held Michele and another lawyer in contempt for asserting the right to represent indigents there.  Traci Smith’s leadership was required in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, when county supervisors there decided that her motion practice in a capital case was too vigorous and that evidence of that should be placed in her personnel file with the county.  Leadership was required in Charleston, South Carolina, when 9 people were slaughtered in the Mother Emanuel AME church, and while most of the city was in mourning, Ashley Pennington had to make certain that the suspected killer, Dylann Roof, was represented by counsel.  Paul DeWolfe, Maryland’s Public Defender, was faced with the need for his leadership when 200 persons were arrested during the expressions of anguish over the death of Freddie Gray, and bonds were set outrageously high and counsel was not appointed.  Jeff Adachi’s leadership was required when he got a call saying one of his lawyers, Jami Tillotson, had been arrested and led away in handcuffs for the act of telling her client to remain silent.  Public defense leaders do not have the luxury of saying that “leadership is dead.”  If we are to uphold the rights of our clients, leadership must be alive and robust.

The gold standard in public defense leadership uses critical thinking based upon the value of being client-centered.  So whether or not leadership is dead, we spent three days at Valparaiso Law School learning how to provide zealous and value-centered leadership.  Each leader brought a leadership challenge and worked on that challenge in small groups for over 10 hours.  They applied what they learned from a variety of presentations, including Reflective Practice, the Four Frames, the Strategic Triangle, Adaptive Leadership, Culture Change, Growing Leadership, External Leadership, and Communication.   Interspersed were inspiring presentations from Ilham Askia, Ndume Olatushoni, and Raj Jayadev that focused the leaders on the value of client-centered public defense from the perspective of clients, client families, and client communities.

Supervisors and managers are next.  58 public defense leaders left Valpo on Wednesday afternoon. They all affirmed that NAPD needs to offer this training again.  What’s next?  In March of 2016 NAPD will be offering training specifically targeted to public defense managers and supervisors.  Stay tuned!