More Than a Lawyer

A few abilities are vital in almost any leadership situation. Two of them are the ability to listen with a completely open mind and a high tolerance for ambiguity. You might not expect to find mastery of both listening and ambiguity in an attorney – that is until you meet Rosalind Mouser.

Rosalind practices law in Pine Bluff, but these days you will find her in Little Rock most weeks fulfilling her duties as president of the Arkansas Bar Association. Rosalind demonstrates both of these vital leadership qualities in everything from the way she engages with members of the Bar to her involvement in her community.

I have written here about the importance of listening in leadership (“Can You Hear Me Now?,” Sept. 25, 2006). Listening to truly understand is a high art. Our default way to listen is at best with half our brain – because we are focused on formulating our response.

In example after example, I could hear how Rosalind put aside her agenda or point of view with the specific intention of fully understanding others and their points of view. This is not to suggest her acquiescence; this quality is just a sincere openness and desire to understand. In fact, Rosalind is one of the few leaders I have met who has a personal rule of engagement specifically for situations where open-minded listening is needed. Rosalind focuses very strongly on preserving the integrity of the process for making any decision.

She describes an inner checklist for that integrity. Do all points of view have a voice at the table? Is the group accountable as a whole for the decision? Can everyone sleep at night about the way the decision is made? With that kind of frank and open debate, any but the most purposefully obstinate can feel good about the decision – even if it did not go their way.

But listening in an open manner creates another challenge. To try to understand the view of someone with whom we disagree, we have to develop the ability to hold ambiguity. As managers, we are taught to get quickly and efficiently to answers. And sometimes that fast lane to clarity and action is required. However, issues of governance, strategy or big decisions that will affect many ask us to consider the question for a longer time.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer calls this “wallowing in the question.” Wallowing requires that instead of a situation being polarized into an “either-or” response, we be willing to look harder for a more subtle “both-and” solution.

Again, Rosalind just seems to have a knack for this. She holds strongly to her personal values while also understanding that they may not represent those of the organization she leads. In a recent presentation at the Rotary Club of Little Rock, she spoke about the challenges of providing “liberty and justice for all,” noting that even those accused of the most heinous crimes must have their fair day in court. It is this ability to hold ambiguity that allows a leader to remain engaged with different constituencies while new and creative answers come to light. It is not easy.

Leaders like Rosalind do not need a corner office either. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Rosalind became involved because she simply could not drive by a family on the street in Pine Bluff that was in obvious need of help. Although she had not planned to spend a lot of time and energy on relief efforts, it was not long before she was on the phone with the governor’s office and leading by example on the floor of shelters in Pine Bluff.

Pretty powerful listening given the public view of lawyers, who are often labeled as a “mouthpiece.”

Originally published in Arkansas Business, September 29, 2008.