In our polarized times, few people receive as many accolades--or insults--as a Supreme Court justice. And indeed, when Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly over the weekend, reactions from those who disagreed with his politics were a little...unseemly. One non-fan tweeted a clip of "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead" from The Wizard of Oz,  while another commented: "Please be autoerotic asphyxiation, please be autoerotic asphyxiation..." when the cause of his death was not immediately known. The news of his death apparently resulted in celebration in some gay bars.

But some other political liberals sharply criticized this kind of reaction, for instance with this comment from the New York Observer: "We were saddened, and at times appalled, by the glee with which the news was shared on social media by some of our friends." That article went on to detail how some of Scalia's closest friends and even staunch supporters were at the other end of the political spectrum from him. 

Whether or not you agree with his political stance (I mostly don't) or even his "originalist" literal-text interpretation of the Constitution, there are a lot of things about the late justice to admire, and to learn from.

Here are some useful lessons for any leader:

1. Never take anything too seriously, especially yourself. 

It's tough to imagine a job with more gravitas than the one Justice Scalia had. Nevertheless, he was known for his sense of humor--he loved the Soup Nazi episode of Seinfeld--was called "Nino" by his friends, and was photographed riding an elephant with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "Why don't you call us The Odd Couple?" he joked about his decades-long friendship with Ginsburg, who was his ideological opposite.

2. Make friends with everyone.

In an increasingly partisan political environment, that's tough to do, but Scalia succeeded, and not just with Ginsburg. "Everybody I've served with on the Court I've regarded as a friend," he told New York Magazine in 2013. Having that goodwill, and that ability to connect with those around him help explain how he gradually succeeded in bringing his originalist thinking--once thought an extreme viewpoint--toward the mainstream and gently brought the Court more in line with his thinking over time.

3. Don't surround yourself with people who agree with you.

It's always easier, and thus more appealing, to have the people who work with you most closely agree with all or most of your views. After all, you can trust them to do things just as you would. But Scalia had a different philosophy. "I like to have one of the four clerks whose predispositions are quite the opposite of mine--who are social liberals rather than social conservatives," he told New York. "That kind of clerk will always be looking for the chinks in my armor, for the mistakes I've made in my opinion."

It takes some confidence to deliberately invite a naysayer into your inner circle. But if you can, it will make you stronger because he or she (or they, if there's more than one) will be better than anyone at pointing out the weak points in your projects and plans, which will make them stronger.

4. Don't stand on ceremony.

"Nino" was well known for his informality. "Justice Scalia's sometimes withering questioning helped transform what had been a sleepy bench when he arrived into one that Chief Justice Roberts has said has become too active, with the justices interrupting the lawyers and each other," noted The New York Times. His opinions, that paper noted, were written in plain English, without a lot of legal jargon, so that a wider audience would be able to (and might want to) read them. He's known for being the only justice to use the term "argle-bargle" in a dissent. In case you're wondering, it means copious nonsense.

5. Stick to your principles even when you don't want to.

Scalia was a conservative, a term he did not shy away from. Most of the time, his originalist philosophy led him to opinions that were in line with that political leaning, but sometimes not--as when he upheld people's right to burn the American flag. "I don't like scruffy, bearded, sandal-wearing people who go around burning the United States flag," he said of that decision, but added that the right was protected by the Constitution. In fact, he often said he wished he had a big rubber stamp that said "STUPID BUT CONSTITUTIONAL" for many of the legal issues that crossed his desk. Someone eventually sent him one.

6. Be nice.

Whatever you think of his decisions and the effects they may have had on people's lives, most people who knew Scalia found him to be friendly, warm, engaging, and approachable--not what you necessarily expect from a justice of the High Court. "His manner is more puckish than formal," New York reporter Jennifer Senior wrote, adding that people in Washington knew him as "charming and disarming," but that outside of DC he was seen as either a "demigod on stilts or a menace to democracy."

I bet he really enjoyed that description. 

Published on: Feb 16, 2016
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