Debbie Laskey, MBA

When we think about the qualities that characterize a leader, we often create a list that includes charisma, vision, and strength. But it’s also important to consider the qualities that a leader instills in his or her followers, such as, loyalty, motivation, and dedication.

For an individual to be an effective leader, he or she must be extraordinary at the core of his or her spirit – capable of overcoming extreme odds, capable of seeing much more than a quick fix to a fleeting crisis and, above all else, capable of inspiring followers to join together to achieve a common goal or aspire to become better individuals. Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female member of the US Supreme Court, represents the epitome of this most extraordinary type of leader.

Sandra Day O’Connor was born in 1930 in El Paso, Texas. She attended Stanford University, where she earned a BA Degree in economics followed by a law degree. She also served on the Stanford Law Review. In December 1952, she married John Jay O’Connor, and they had three sons. She was married for 55 years until John’s death in 2009.

In spite of Sandra Day O’Connor’s accomplishments during law school, no law firm in California would hire her due to her gender. One law firm offered her a job as a legal secretary – which she refused. Instead, she dedicated herself to public service and accepted a position as Deputy County Attorney of San Mateo County in California. She also worked in Germany as a civilian attorney and practiced law in Arizona. In 1969, she was appointed to the Arizona State Senate and re-elected twice. In 1975, she was elected judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court in Arizona until 1979, when she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals by Governor Bruce Babbitt. During her time in the Arizona state government, she served in all three of its branches.

Ronald Reagan made a pledge during his 1980 presidential campaign that, if elected, he would appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court, and on July 7, 1981, he nominated Sandra Day O’Connor as an Associate Justice. Pro-life and religious groups opposed the nomination because they feared she was pro-abortion, but on September 21, 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed by the US Senate with a vote of 99-0.

During her tenure as a Justice, O’Connor was known to review cases on an individual basis, which placed her in the center of the court and drew both criticism and praise. She retired from the court in January 2006, and in August 2009, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the United States, by President Barack Obama.

What makes Sandra Day O’Connor a great leader? While she was not a CEO or president of a Fortune 500 company, she demonstrated leadership traits on a daily basis. She set goals and accomplished them. She taught, and she learned. She created a team and led. She accepted public criticism and gave credit. She listened and spoke. She inspired and was inspiring. The truth is, there are not many of us who would hold our heads high if we had been in O’Connor’s shoes when she could not find a job as a lawyer. Instead of shouting about the unfairness of the situation, she looked for another option, an option that would yield great results once she proved herself in public service.

So, the question should not be, what makes Sandra Day O’Connor a great leader. Instead, we should ask ourselves, how can we apply her leadership qualities and successes to our businesses and everyday lives?

While this post was originally written a couple of years ago, I have reprised it as a result of an exciting experience. On March 4, 2014, I was thrilled to attend a luncheon featuring the Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor. She spoke in an endearing manner and regaled the audience with humorous anecdotes from her days on the Supreme Court as well as commentary about her latest project as the creator of iCivics, an online game that provides students with tools for active participation in the democratic process so that they become engaged citizens. Despite being 84, Sandra Day O’Connor continues to lead and inspire.

  • stevebaird

    Debbie, thanks so much for sharing this with us. We should all be inspired to continue leading well into our eighties! The federal court of appeals judge I clerked for in Washington, D.C., years ago was in his eighties at the time, he was an amazing individual too, and he worked and led for many more years, he passed on at the age of 101, almost seven years ago now:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnold_Wilson_Cowen

  • Steve, thanks for sharing your experience – and also for the invite to share the post.