5 Lessons from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Lead the Change You Want to See

[Photo by NBC News]

Imagine you’re in a crowded room. A group of people are leaning over a table, trying to solve a problem. You take a look, and you see the solution. So you try to speak up, but you’re not making a sound. You don’t have a voice. People glance over every once in a while, but you’re not sure they can actually see you.

This is what it felt like to be one of nine women in a class of over 500 men at Harvard Law School in 1956.

The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a Supreme Court Justice for 27 years; the second woman to ever serve on the court.

This small, quiet, and seemingly frail-looking woman changed the way the world works for women in the United States of America. She was a force for change that overcame all odds. And there’s a lot to be learned from her inspiring legacy.

Most of all, Ruth showed us that it’s possible to lead the change we want to see in the world. She taught us how to speak up and change the things we disagree with.

She saw problems as opportunities in disguise; as opportunities to grow and persuade others to follow suit.

“So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Here are some of her priceless words of advice:


1. Lead Change From Within

Leading change from within means leading with empathy. It requires a genuine understanding of the opposing point of view; an understanding that can only be acquired by placing yourself in the other side’s shoes. Because the better you understand the opposing points, the better you can refute them in a way that others will hear you.

Despite graduating top of her class, Ruth struggled to find a law firm in New York that would hire her. Many firms openly didn’t hire women. Treating men and women differently wasn’t considered unjust. It was the norm.

The American justice system didn’t work for her. But instead of fighting it, she changed it from the inside out.

As a woman, she had experienced discrimination on the basis of sex first-hand. She saw why the law wasn’t working for women. In turn, as a lawyer, she had an insight into the system. She understood what the justices wanted to hear and how they wanted to hear it. It was from the inside that she was able to identify the cracks and fix them.

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg


2. Choose Your Words Wisely

In her book, My Own Words, Ginsburg explained how novelist Vladimir Nabovok changed the way she read and wrote:

“He used words to paint pictures. Even today, when I read, I notice with pleasure when an author has chosen a particular word, a particular place, for the picture it will convey to the reader.”

She too chose her words wisely. The purpose? To arouse emotion. Empathy is a particularly powerful emotion. Arousing empathy is a way to invite your opposition to open their mind and consider a different perspective; your perspective.

You can inform your audience for hours to no avail. People might understand your point of view; they might even accept it. But if you want to galvanize people into action, you need to stir something inside them that will make them want to join you.


3. Don’t Raise Your Voice

“Conduct yourself civilly, don’t let emotions like anger or envy get in your way” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

We’ve all experienced a heated debate. Whether you were participating or observing, you know the drill. But the truth is, nobody likes to be yelled at. It turns people away more so than bring them to the table.

Raising your voice is just a sign of frustration. It diminishes your credibility and it makes you less approachable.

Not only will people stop coming to you for advice, interested to hear your opinion; there’ll be reluctant to share their thoughts and ideas. Sure, you might win the argument, but think of what you could be losing.

I studied law at University, so I’ve experienced a fair share of heated debates. And I’ve seen how quickly someone’s credibility can plummet as soon as they raise their voice. What did I think when someone started yelling? They’re about to crack. They must have saturated all of their points because they’re clearly becoming desperate. I doubt they have anything more to say, and if they do, they clearly don’t know how to say it. So just keep calm, keep going, let them keep digging.

Yelling isn’t a sign of confidence. It’s not a symbol of strength or intelligence. Quite the opposite. Feel your emotions, but don’t let them get in your way.


4. It’s OK to Disagree With People You Like

“You can disagree without being disagreeable.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Had Judge Scalia been a justice when Ginsburg was arguing women’s rights cases throughout the 70s, he would undoubtedly have voted against her. Their views were polar opposites. But accepting that their roles on the bench required cooperation, these two justices focused on the things they had in common; the opera.

They were the court’s most famous odd couple friendship. A dynamic duo so entertaining to watch, that they made an appearance on stage, as the Scalia/Ginsburg comic opera. Despite their differences, their lives were much more fun when they learned to accept these.

The chances are that you won’t agree with everyone. And that’s ok. Actually, it’s more than ok. It’s good, it’s necessary, it’s diversity. Also, it makes life more interesting and fun.


5. Be Patient

Many of us have come close to quitting. We become impatient, frustrated, and demotivated when we don’t achieve our desired results. Our goals seem so far away that we can’t see our small wins. We forget the progress we’ve made, however small.

Long before becoming Justice, Ruth appeared before the Supreme Court in her first women’s rights case; Frontiero v Richardson. She won the court over in her first appearance. It was an impressive win. But it was a short-term win, and Ruth wasn’t satisfied.

“I think generally, in our society, real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Instant gratification is just that; fleeting. And she didn’t want to capture the justices’ attention for a fleeting moment. She wanted to embed the issue at the forefront of their minds by repeating her argument a number of times. Because she recognized that making a significant change would take time.


Bottom Line

There are things in life worth fighting for; others not. When you feel passionate to lead the change that you want to see, however big or small, don’t be discouraged by opposition.

Many great minds have lead change before. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an amazing example. So when you’re ready, let her advice lead the way:

1. Lead change from within

2. Choose your words wisely

3. Don’t raise your voice

4. It’s ok to disagree with people you like

5. Be patient

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