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Marshall & Taft led by Supreme consensus

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Leading by consensus will give your team more clout than if you run it by vote or on your authority alone. Here’s why.
Guiding your team to reach consensus means that, at the end, you’ll all be able to speak with one voice … and not merely your voice, either. Team members won’t all buy in to the same degree, but at least they’ll have had a chance to help mold the final decision. Consensus lets the world see that your team agrees on a course of action.
A great example: In its early years, the U.S. Supreme Court lacked the public’s trust, largely because it considered few cases and produced opinions marked by division.
Then came the fourth chief justice, John Marshall, who changed all that. Marshall unified the court, which began to issue single, unanimous opinions forged by consensus. That new unity helped the court assert itself in various ways, including interpreting the law when states disagreed.
By the time Marshall died in 1835, the Supreme Court had begun to fulfill its role.
But the story doesn’t end there. Another chief justice, former President William Howard Taft, also led a remarkably cohesive court: 84 percent of its opinions were unanimous. Taft didn’t like dissents, believing it was important for the justices to stand together. He thought dissents represented ego, which hurt the court’s prestige. He wanted the law to be certain, so that people could plan their lives and business transactions around it.
How did Taft win consensus? He carefully crafted opinions to meet the concerns of all the justices. Taft led by example, holding up voting on a complicated utility-valuation case so that one justice could work through his concerns, then scheduling an entire day of discussion on the matter. Taft also encouraged the justices to keep their opinions to the bare essentials, avoiding side discussions. He himself cut out a long section on the commerce clause from one opinion, citing his duty to control his personal preference.
That’s not to say that everything always ran smoothly on Taft’s court. Three justices vexed him with their independent thinking, especially on freedom of speech. But even they recognized their dissents as often useless and undesirable, and at least one of them tried to keep his disagreements to himself if he thought he’d strayed too far out of line from the other justices.
Taft’s goal of unanimity reflected what he valued: solidarity, selfrestraint and loyalty. Does the goal for your team reflect what you value?

— Adapted from The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, Random House.

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