A Profile in Courage

Raymond Kethledge (Portrait: Areaman17/Wikimedia)
A review of Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude, by Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin

Judges used to be rugged, because they had to be: Back when Supreme Court justices “rode circuit,” they traveled to far-flung parts of the country to hear cases. Justice Field — wearing a coat with pockets big enough for two pistols — would sail to Panama, cross the country by burro, and then sail up the coast to San Francisco. Nowadays, the more popular image of a judge might be that of a soft-handed Ivy League establishment type: Someone who grew up with elites, went to school with elites, got his ideas from elites, and eventually rejoined his kind inside the Beltway. President Trump himself famously has “one overarching question” when evaluating judicial nominees: “He’s not weak, is he?” Are there any judges left of the old mold?

I can think of at least one. I don’t know if Judge Raymond Kethledge has ever ridden a burro (or gone to San Francisco), but I do know that he has tracked game through the Michigan wilderness, pulled salmon out of the St. Mary’s River, and battled swells in his aluminum fishing boat on Lake Huron. Although not formally part of his job description as a federal judge (his own “circuit riding” takes him south to Cincinnati rather than north to upper Michigan), these rugged pursuits nonetheless illustrate the way Kethledge approaches his job. He is well-renowned for not mincing words. His decisions (which he writes himself, from outline to published opinion) are refreshingly concise, especially compared to the doorstops routinely churned out by other chambers. He holds fast to the text of statutes and the Constitution (i.e., the law) and rebukes those litigants (often federal agencies) who do not. His rigorous thinking mirrors his rigorous living.

Judge Kethledge, along with coauthor Michael Erwin, has now given us a book, Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude, about other leaders who have found clarity, creativity, balance, and courage through a process of rigorous thought and focused reflection. Think of General Ulysses S. Grant, holed up in the cabin of his ship until he composed a daring plan to get his troops through Vicksburg. Or General James Mattis, the “Warrior Monk” (and now the secretary of defense) who in 2011 assumed command of American military operations in the Middle East, and who took his copious library with him wherever he went.

Several others have already glowingly reviewed Lead Yourself First, but none have explained what it tells us about the man who co-wrote it. I recognize in these pages the Raymond Kethledge I’ve known since he worked for me as a young staffer more than 20 years ago, a man who has displayed the same vital leadership qualities — intelligence, creativity, balance, and, above all, courage — that he identifies in the book.

Lead Yourself First profiles not just military leaders, but leaders of every sort: pastors, CEOs, and even heads of families. Its lessons thus extend beyond the boardroom or the battlefield to the problems we all encounter every day. Readers of faith, for example, will take much from the chapter on Pope John Paul II. As the youngest bishop in Poland under the Soviet regime, he was fortified to preach against tyranny from the bowels of Communism by his personal faith, which he explored through long hours at his writing desk each morning. One place he started was in Nowa Huta, a “model” Communist city lined bleakly with rows of faceless buildings, not a church among them. The young bishop offered midnight Mass each Christmas Eve, year after year, on an empty, frozen plot until the regime at last allowed the people to build a church of their own.

As the book’s title implies, its central thesis is that solitude is what gave these individuals the ability to lead others so effectively. Only in solitude can a leader engage in the rigorous kind of thought that enables him to connect with his first principles. And only once he has connected with those principles can he truly lead. As Judge Kethledge writes, a leader out of touch with his first principles will eventually run short of, among other things, the courage leadership requires. Worse still:

With a lack of direction internally, he will become directed externally. He will find himself governed by optics. He will have an uneasy awareness of a gap between what he thinks he believes and what he in fact chooses to do. The gap itself will reveal a lack of clarity in his thinking. And when others see the gap — when they say he is phony or hypocritical, and discount his leadership accordingly — he will have nothing to draw upon inside.

To lead, then, a leader must first of all decide for himself where he wants to go. But as the book explains, that is hard work, because easier paths always beckon: “the worn path of convention,” where the leader can avoid any resistance; “the fenced path of bureaucracy,” where the leader can be shielded from blame; and, most tempting of all, “the parade route of adulation,” where the leader makes decisions based on popular opinion, often as it is perceived by elites. None of that, of course, is leadership, at least not the kind of a Grant, Mattis, or Pope John Paul II, the kind that we could rightly celebrate.

The solution is moral courage, especially in the face of criticism — which is to say the determination to stand by principle even when desertion would be more convenient. This is the courage not to conform, and it comes from the soul, as Judge Kethledge makes clear:

The very point of [criticism] is to enforce conformity, and thus to prevent the leader from making [principled] decisions in the first place. Moral courage is what enables a leader to make them nonetheless. It requires not only clarity, but conviction. And to have conviction, and thus moral courage, the leader must get her soul involved.

Just how to get one’s soul involved was the great project — and triumph — of the leaders profiled in Lead Yourself First, from Abraham Lincoln to Lawrence of Arabia, from Martin Luther King Jr. to the everyday leaders among us still. Anyone who seeks advice on that score, therefore, should simply read the book. My focus here is not on how, but on why. For the book is not only a lesson in how to find courage through rigorous thought, but also in the importance of courage in the first place. Without courage, Churchill hardly could have delivered the speeches we now revere but that were abhorred at the time: when he declared on the floor of Parliament that Britain’s recent capitulation to Hitler’s demands had been “a total and unmitigated defeat,” he was greeted with a chorus of boos. No doubt he did not relish the criticism; no one would. But he knew where he had to go, and he had the courage to stay the course.

In any given case, the law might align with what a judge and the crowd prefer it would. But just as often it will not. It thus takes courage to follow the law.

It is easy to forget that this courage is and always has been the core quality of leadership. The safeties of convention and pleasures of adulation beckon us all the time, perhaps never more than now. Any leader who dares speak the truth (as he sees it) risks being chased from campuses, vilified on social media, or banished from polite society — all for failing to embrace the high cultural dogmas of the ruling class. Meanwhile, the fanfare stands ready to play for anyone willing to conform. Yet even that so-called leader will not be safe for long, because the problem with externally defined truths is that they shift. Proof: In today’s Orwellian rhetoric, “to resist” in fact means “to conform.” That is why, as Judge Kethledge teaches, principle is the only real safety. We soon forget those who play only for the applause of the powerful, but long remember those who stand by principle.

Thus, above all, Lead Yourself First is about courage. And what else could we ask from a judge but that? In any given case, the law might align with what a judge and the crowd prefer it would. But just as often it will not. It thus takes courage to follow the law. The publication of Lead Yourself First is in this sense fortuitous. The lingering vacancies in the federal judiciary are at long last being filled, with highly qualified people who have all pledged their allegiance to the rule of law, as they must. Before they finally take the bench, however, they would do well to read this book. Judge Kethledge could easily be talking about judges — leaders in their own right — when he says that “the leader who defies convention must bear the disapproval of establishment types, who will try to coerce him morally, and failing that might box his ears.” And so “the leader” — or the judge — “who makes unpopular decisions must be willing to be unpopular herself, at least for a while.”

Those words come as no surprise from Judge Kethledge because he is one of those judges. You can see it in his opinions. When, in United States v. NorCal Tea Party Patriots, members of the Tea Party alleged mistreatment by the IRS, Judge Kethledge began by noting, ominously, that “among the most serious allegations a federal court can address are that an Executive agency has targeted citizens for mistreatment based on their political views. No citizen — Republican or Democrat, socialist or libertarian — should be targeted or even have to fear being targeted on those grounds.” When, in EEOC v. Kaplan, the EEOC sued an employer for running credit checks on potential employees (just as the EEOC itself did), Judge Kethledge “eviscerated the EEOC like a first-day law student” in a “legal smackdown so sublime” that the Wall Street Journal dubbed it the Opinion of the Year. And when, in Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, the Department of Labor tried to impose ruinous fines on a church, in part because it found the reverend’s sermons “coercive,” Judge Kethledge wryly noted that “one hopes . . . the Department of Labor simply failed to think through its position in this case,” and then admonished the department to “tend to what is Caesar’s, and leave the rest alone.” As Bloomberg Law observed shortly after the 2016 election, “President-elect Donald Trump and Sixth Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge have something in common — blunt opinions.”

These blunt opinions don’t come from a man who fears having his ears boxed by political elites. True, they might not risk a trek into the heartland to get him. But Judge Kethledge has spent enough time inside the Beltway, working in my Senate office for the people of Michigan, to be inoculated against its pressures. In a recent speech, he recalled learning one trick of the Washington trade, namely that young staffers write legislative history — which is not part of any law but which some judges will apply if they like it better than the law — often with no oversight whatsoever from the senators themselves. It is therefore no wonder that he has never relied upon legislative history to interpret statutory language.

More importantly, Judge Kethledge’s courage comes from a lifetime of rigorous thought. And this book is the result — profound lessons, distilled from richly drawn characters, set forth in compelling prose. On every page, one senses an author who got his soul involved — who immersed himself in his subject and worked out for himself what he thought about it. I happen to know that this is exactly what happened: Judge Kethledge wrote almost every word of the book in his barn office in northern Michigan, where the only source of heat is an old stove fueled by wood he chops himself.

Judge Kethledge approaches his day job the same way. He has worked out his principles for himself. He has grounded those principles in the foundational doctrine of our law, namely that the Constitution — as it was written and understood at the time — matters above all. And he has shown the courage to stand by those principles, no matter the case or opposition — the kind of courage that comes from conviction; the kind that every judge or justice needs.

Spencer Abraham is a former United States secretary of energy and United States senator from Michigan. He co-founded the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, as well as the Federalist Society.

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