Students sitting in a classroom while a teacher presents.

Leadership Education Cannot Be Decoupled from Anti-Racism Education

By Kellye Y. Testy

For many years law schools did not educate their students in leadership skills. Law was focused on the brain. “I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer,” said Professor Kingsfield. Thought to be more the realm of EQ than IQ, leadership education did not fit the prevailing rubric. And besides, lawyers naturally became leaders — look at all those U.S. Presidents. Finis disputationis.

Many of us sought to change that mindset and encourage leadership to be taught in law schools. Why? Because leadership can be learned and, as it turned out, lawyers were not naturally so good at it — particularly after three straight years of a largely Kingsfieldian diet. Yes, lawyers were expected to be leaders, so why not actually lend them a hand at developing these skills during law school?

Thankfully, today, the need for leadership development in law schools is increasingly accepted and most law schools offer courses and programs to support their students’ growth. 

Yet something is missing. And what’s missing lies at the heart of leadership. 

Most current law school leadership development programs do not have an anti-racism component. This is a grave oversight. Leadership is not abstract or acontextual; it is action for or toward something and that something should always have equity and belonging at its core and as its goal. 

To that point, educating law students to be leaders cannot be decoupled from educating law students to be anti-racist. Nor can it be decoupled from anti-bias education on other fronts including gender identity, sexuality, disability, age, ethnicity, religion, and all their intersections. The reason is clear. Equality remains out of reach for many. While significant progress has been made, the promise of equal justice is still on the horizon, not living among us.

Including anti-racism education in leadership development programs isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also the most effective way to teach leadership. Leadership is a human endeavor and we all have identities that matter in how we lead and how we receive leadership. Leadership development requires the hard work of self-reflection so that we understand not only who we want to be but who we are perceived to be by those we seek to lead. We must remain mindful that our intentions and our impact may diverge. 

Further, self-deception and other forms of woundedness limit our capacity as leaders and racism is one of the most pernicious in this regard. Racism infects every aspect of leadership, contorting our view of who we see with “leadership potential” and contorting how we interact with leaders who are different from us. Racism also contorts how we lead because the damages of racism are real and may, without intervention, take a toll on our ability to lead to our fullest potential. 

Understanding these harms and knowing how to address them and to make changes toward equity so that they are reduced are core aspects of leadership education. For these reasons and more, educating law students to be leaders cannot be decoupled from educating law students to be anti-racist. Finis disputationis.

Note: This commentary was originally published in the Winter 2021 Association of American Law Schools Leadership Section Newsletter.

Kellye Y. Testy

President and Chief Executive Officer of LSAC
Since 2017, Kellye Y. Testy has served as president and chief executive officer of the Law School Admission Council, the leading assessment, data, and technology hub for law schools and their candidates in the United States, Canada, and throughout the world.