It’s Not What You Have, It’s What You Do With It: State Supreme Court Justices and Leadership

State Supreme Court Justices and Leadership


It’s Not What You Have, It’s What You Do With It: State Supreme Court Justices and Leadership

State Supreme Court Justices and Leadership

It’s Not What You Have, It’s What You Do With It: State Supreme Court Justices and Leadership

Charlie Hollis Whittington & Cori Nicole Chapman


The 2016 Presidential election disrupted the landscape of United States politics as the visions put forth by the different candidates caused society to question the roots of the political system. In 2008, we asked, “can a black male be President of the United States?” This proved true with the election of Barrack Obama. In 2016, we asked, “can a female be President of the United States?” Despite winning the popular vote, Hillary Clinton was defeated by the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. While we question as a society whether or not it is time for a woman president, leaders exist in institutions outside of the executive office. Leaders play important roles in all facets of the policymaking process whether as executives, legislatures, or judges. This paper explores the leadership traits characteristics of a largely invisible group of leaders: state supreme court justices. Specifically, we examine the nature of individual-level leadership traits in a sample of state supreme court justices.

There are two interconnected elements of leadership to consider: (1) the traits and characteristics required for leadership and (2) leader emergence, conventionally defined as the process by which individuals become leaders.[1] While a plethora of literature exists dealing with these two topics, researchers have yet to inquire about the leadership of state supreme court justices. Following a literature review, we experiment with measurements of gender across binary sex-based characteristics. Proceeding, we review the literature on particular individual-level variables. Our explorative analysis suggests that state supreme court justices in this sample do not significantly differ from one another in their gender tendencies and attitude toward leadership. However, the results counterintuitively suggest that female state supreme court justices may possess more self-confidence than male state supreme court justices.

1. A New Temporary Theory and Definition of Leader Emergence

The conventional definition of leader emergence suggests there is an association between specific conditions, times, and occupational environments with the rise of a leader. We temporarily abandon this definition to fit our object of analysis: state supreme court justices. Our goal is to address differences in state supreme court justices as social individuals, not as members of different structures and occupational environments. For state supreme court justices, we redefine leader emergence in this study as a life-process of development.

When we question how or why one becomes a state supreme court justice, we consider a judge’s development as a leader in their lifetime, rather than a specific situation in which they lead on the bench, by which an individual’s experiences and characteristics equip them to become a state supreme court justice. Justices are not typical leaders. Tracing back to the United States founding, we know that justices are the most harmless leaders who lead with judgement, rather than a purse or sword. Our objective is not to rehash decades of literature that explains leader emergence as a concept, but to note that leader emergence for justices occurs over a long period of time.[2]

2. Understanding Individual Variable Leadership Traits

What leadership traits do leaders possess? Do state supreme court justices possess these traits, too? How do male and female state supreme court justices differ across certain variables? Do males or females appear stronger for leadership traits than the other?

We identify four different typologies of leadership variables in the literature: (1) individual variables, (2) processual variables, (3) structural variables and, (4) environmental variables (Bryson & Kelley 1978).  We narrow our analysis to four individual-level variables across state supreme court chief justices.

The individual variables considered in this study include sex-role (gender-role, gender tendency, or gender performance),[3] self-confidence, attitude toward leadership, and experience. Sex-role is understood as the masculine and feminine elements of individual behavior and identity (Wade & Ferree 2015, 5). Self-confidence is the perception of the probability of successfully completing a task (McClelland 1985). The self-confidence trait resembles the ability to remain faithful and assured in capability. Leaders must also possess the attitude and ambition of a leader. Attitude is the desire to lead or become a leader (Kirkpatrick & Locke 1991; Miner 1978). Finally, effective leaders in high-level positions require experience. Leaders in high-level positions develop professional networks and prestige for top-level experience and knowledge (Bryson & Kelley 1978).

2.1 Sex-Role (Gender-Role, Gender Tendency, Gender Performance)

The literature suggests gender as one potential determinant of leadership or leader emergence, and associates masculinity with effectiveness (Goktepe & Schneier 1989; Kent & Moss 1994; Kolb 1996, 1999; Powell & Butterfield 1979). However, individuals occasionally adopt androgynous roles of both feminine and masculine characteristics (Bem 1974). People with androgynous or masculine leadership styles may make the most effective leaders, the latter typically most effective (Korabik and Ayman 1987). This suggests that leaders possess masculine tendencies (Chusmir & Koberg 1991; McGlasham, Wright, & McCormick 1995).

Gender stereotypes, perceptions, and discrimination in society may also shape the gender performance of leaders and influence leader emergence. Research finds that women prefer androgynous gender styles and use those styles to counter discriminative barriers that value feminine gender styles less (Brenner, Tomkiewicz, & Schein 1989; Korabik 1990). Another study finds that gender perceptions influence women’s consideration to run for elected office (Lawless & Fox 2005). Contrarily, feminine components of leadership potentially make more appropriate for modern society due to shifts in social norms that value feminine leadership traits more than masculine leadership traits (De la Rey 2005).

2.2 Self-Confidence

Self-confidence is crucial for decision-makers that foster trust and faith. Leaders plagued with self-doubt and uncertainty cannot fulfill leadership duties (Kirkpatrick & Locke 1991). In support of this claim, research links self-confidence and leader emergence (Bray, Campbell, & Grant 1974; Howard & Bray 1988; Kolb 1999; Monday 1979). The low number of women state-level high appointees likely results from lack of self-confidence, hindering the ability to self-perceive qualifications (Lawless and Fox 2005). A study that uses original survey data from state-level appointed officeholders finds that gendered perceptions inhibit the self-confidence and ambition of women (Sidorsky’s 2015).

However, there are other studies that suggest self-confidence does not affect leader emergence. Researchers assess the force of self-confidence on the managerial advancement of men and women but find no evidence that indicates a nexus between self-confidence and leader emergence (Tharenou, Latimer, & Conroy 1994). They did, however, find that self-confidence does impact career encouragement, training, and development. These implicit determinants of leader emergence suggest that self-confidence potentially intervenes through other variables on certain occasions. Likewise, others find no significant association between self-confidence and leader emergence (Sapp, Harrod, & Zhao 1996), but doubts about this result and find a correlation between self-confidence and leader emergence (Kolb 1999).

2.3 Attitude Toward Leadership

Simply put, leaders desire to lead. Traits associated with this desire include drive (i.e., ambition, energy, tenacity, and initiative), motivation, and integrity (Kirkpatrick & Locke 1991). Women potentially face a disadvantage because of gender norms that typically attribute and socialize women to lack the desire to lead (Claes 1999; Lipsey et al. 1990). However, research reports instances of women having more ambition than men. Scholars suggest that women experience increase in ambition and hence positive attitudes toward the benefits of leadership or leader emergence (Fulton et al. 2006), while others directly associate attitude toward leadership with leader emergence (Kolb, 1997 1999).

"Scholars suggest that women experience increase in ambition and hence positive attitudes toward the benefits of leadership or leader emergence, while others directly associate attitude toward leadership with leader emergence."

2.4 Experience

Leaders are knowledgeable and experienced in a given occupational field (Kirkpatrick & Locke 1991). Government officials require knowledge in a particular sector of government in order to advance in the chain-of-command (Bryson and Kelley 1978). Furthermore, experience potentially engenders self-confidence that serves as one impetus of leader emergence. Women who perceive themselves as qualified to hold office were more likely consider seeking elected office (Lawless and Fox 2005). Statistical evidence also supports that more experience leads to the likelihood of leader emergence (Kolb 1997).

3. Data and Methodology

The data for this study come from an original nonrandom survey administered to current and former state supreme court justices. The survey is representative, but the data is not publicly available due to confidentiality.[4] Survey respondents from the 31 different states (shown in Table 1) consist of current and former justices of different regions in the United States. Respondents consisted of current and former state supreme court justices. Using information on state supreme court websites for current justices, and directories found in various state bar associations and the American Bar Association for former justices provided the location of contact information of potential respondents. There were 537 potential respondents that received hard copies of the survey. Out of the 537 potential respondents, 62 returned completed or partially completed surveys (approximately 12 percent response rate).[5] While the low response rate gives potential rise to nonresponse bias in our results, the data are sufficiently representative for basic exploration.

Whittington Stats Visual Text.jpg

The survey asked a series of questions to measure gender role, level of self-confidence, attitude toward leadership, and experience for each justice (shown in Table 2). This study borrowed largely from Kolb’s (1999) study in the development of the questions and answer selections for the survey. From the 62 justices that returned surveys, sex (male or female) was self-reported by 56 respondents. A different number of respondents answered each question: 46 respondents for gender, 48 respondents for attitude, 52 respondents for self-confidence, and 52 respondents for experience.

3.1 Gender

Respondents were asked: “Please rank-order these character traits as you believe they apply to you. Please skip any you do not believe apply to you.” The answer choices included (1) independent, (2) understanding, (3) happy, (4) assertive, (5) cheerful, (6) ambitious and, (7) loyal. Independent, assertive, and ambitious were categorized as masculine traits and each possess the raw value of one. Understanding, cheerful, and loyal were categorized as feminine traits and each possess the raw value of negative one. Finally, the trait happy serves as the controlled trait with the raw value of zero.  

Three separate calculations were made for gender scores.[6] The first calculation measures the dramaturgical[7] gender score of the respondent. The second calculation is the true gender score, which encompasses all characteristics that respondents claim as part of their identity. A third gender score is calculated by averaging the scores of both the dramaturgical and true gender scores. Erving Goffman (1959) in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life introduced a sociological perspective of identity, which considered identity to be the product of daily human interaction (see also: Goffman 1974). The theory implicates that an individual “performs” gender with front and back stage settings. We argue that the dramaturgical gender score is the best measurement for understanding leadership and gender, as this score focuses on gender tendencies in the act of leading.

Dramaturgical gender score equals the sum of raw values of the first three character traits that justices mark in the survey. This score intends to capture front stage gender tendency of respondents. For example, respondents who select independent, assertive, and ambitious traits as the first three character traits receive a dramaturgical gender score of three. The true gender score captures a broader concept of gender performance because it accounts for all selected answers and intends to capture androgynous tendencies in gender performances.

3.2 Self-Confidence

Respondents answered this question to determine self-confidence: “On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being irrelevant and 10 being extremely relevant), write a number most relevant to your personality.” The answer choices included: (1) I always defend my opinions when someone challenges them, (2) I am confident in and trust my own judgement, (3) I can effectively communicate my opinions and beliefs and, (4) When given a task, I am confident that I have fulfilled expectations when I complete an assigned task. Responses by justices between one and four (inclusive) receive a raw score of negative one and responses between six and ten (inclusive) receive a raw score of one. Responses by justices of five receive a value of zero as an indifference score. Self-confidence scores are the sum of the raw scores of the justices’ answers. The maximum possible self-confidence score is four and the minimum possible self-confidence score is negative four.

3.3 Attitude

Respondents answered this question to determine attitude score: “Please rank-order the following statements as you believe them to apply to your personality. Please skip any you do not believe apply to you.” The answer choices included: (1) I have been a motivated person my whole life, (2) I have been proactive and persistent in my career and aspirations, (3) I generally wait for opportunities to approach me before I act, (4) I am comfortable in leadership roles, (5) I do not necessarily set out to control group activities and events, but I like to participate to the fullest extent that I can and, (6) I always put my best efforts forward to achieve my goals. Answer choices (1) and (4) possess the raw value of one, answer choices (3) and (5) possess the raw value of negative one, and answer choices (2) and (6) possess the raw value of zero for a neutral set of answers. The maximum possible attitude score is two and the minimum possible attitude score is negative two.

3.4 Experience

The question for experience asks the justices to self-report how many years they worked in particular occupations related to the legal community, law, and government. During review, the survey results removed outliers from the data set to err on the side analytical conservatism. A handful of justices had an abnormal amount of years of experience. One justice self-reported 90 years of experience and another justice self-reported 92 years of experience. These justices may have worked in more than one occupation at the same time, which explains these answers. For example, a justice may have operated a private practice while working as a professor or state official. Therefore, the analysis only includes years worked as an attorney or as a judge of a different type of court. The sum of these years equals the experience score.  

4. Descriptive Statistics

Initial descriptive analysis shown in Table 3 indicate that traditional patterns in leadership behavior or leader emergence for men and women may not apply to state supreme court justices. Approximately 57 percent of respondents scored negative (or feminine) for dramaturgical gender scores of which about 19 of respondents (about 42 percent) scored negative one. Out of the 19 respondents that scored negative one, 7 were females (about 37 percent) and 12 were males (about 63 percent), or about half of total female respondents and 38 percent of total male respondents. In other words, justices in this sample appear to project slightly feminine characteristics on the front stage of their gender performance. Respondents predominately scored zero for true gender scores (a total of 39 or about 85 percent of respondents). Out of the 39 respondents that scored zero, 12 were females (about 31 percent) and 27 were males (about 69 percent), or roughly 86 percent of total female respondents and 84 percent of total male respondents. This statistic abstractly supports the conclusion that individuals tend to adopt androgynous gender tendencies (Bem’s 1974).

            The descriptive statistics for self-confidence scores are unsurprising. Roughly 86 percent of respondents scored positive for self-confidence scores. This suggests that state supreme court justices in this sample exhibit self-confidence, which supports the evidence in the literature associating leadership with this trait. Approximately 70 percent of respondents that scored positive for self-confidence scored either a three out of four or a four out of four. This further implicates justices in this sample as extremely confident individuals. Unexpectedly, 37 of total respondents (about 77 percent) scored zero for attitude toward leadership. Justices may not exhibit nor possess the inclination to lead. Finally, descriptive results for experience scores demonstrate no potential de facto requirement of experience, in terms of years worked in past occupations, to become a state supreme court justice. Years of experience ranged from 4 years to 60 years prior to judgeship.

5. Results of Means Comparisons

5.1 Mean Descriptive Statistics

We employed t-tests for comparing average scores between male and female respondents (results shown in Table 4). The average gender scores for all respondents are about -0.28 for dramaturgical, 0.04 for true, -0.12 for actual. A perfect 3 suggests that the justice is “perfectly” feminine and a perfect negative 3 suggests that the justice is “perfectly” masculine. This suggests that justices generally express relatively weak feminine or androgynous gender tendencies. The average self-confidence score for all justices is about 2.29, which indicates justices as self-confident individuals. Oddly, the average attitude toward leadership score for all justices is about 0.15. This weak score suggests that justices do not appear to either desire to lead or possess an aversion to lead. Finally, the average years of experience justices acquired prior to judgeship is roughly 27 years of experience. However, this statistic may not be particularly informative given the large standard deviation of 12 years of experience, with a maximum of 60 and a minimum of four.

Male respondents scored average dramaturgical scores of -0.25 while female respondents scored average dramaturgical scores of -0.36. This suggests that both male and female justices perform slightly feminine or androgynous as leaders in daily life. Males scored higher than females despite insignificant differences between them (p = 0.4015; t = 0.2518). Furthermore, male respondents report average total gender scores of 0.03, while female respondents report average total gender scores of 0.07. Male and female justices exhibit slight masculine tendencies for total gender scores. Female justices appear more masculine in totality, with a slight statistical difference (p = 0.4125; t = -0.2243). Finally, actual gender scores align with dramaturgical gender scores. Male respondents report average actual gender scores of -0.11, while female respondents report average actual gender scores of -0.14 (p = 0.1205; t = -1.1935). This additionally suggests that both male and female justices perform slightly feminine, but in terms of the processes by which front stage gender performances interact with true gender performances.

Feminine gender stereotypes suggest that female leaders possess less self-confidence than their male counterparts on average. Therefore, male justices should score higher than female justices. Male respondents report average self-confidence scores of 1.89, while female respondents report average self-confidence scores of 3.27 (p = 0.0054; t = -2.6484). This counterintuitively suggests that females have more self confidence than males.

According to the results, male respondents report average attitude toward leadership scores of 0.09, while female respondents report average attitude toward leadership scores of 0.29. Overall, the scores suggest that male and female justices in this sample both appear indifferent to leadership, despite the small difference. Females score higher than males on the average attitude toward leadership score, but these scores are not statistically significantly different (p = 0.1706; t = -0.9682).

The political approach to leadership suggests that political leaders require certain levels of relevant experience to obtain leadership positions. Gender stereotypes place extra barriers on females in the legal profession. Hence, males should report less experience than females pre-judgeship. Females in this sample report 3 years less experience than males, but this difference is not statistically significant (p = 0.7694; t= 0.7499).

6. Discussion and Conclusion

This study contributes to the literature by providing new research on state supreme court justices and leadership and explores a new potential methodology for measuring gender in future research. We temporarily redefined leader emergence as a life process that involves living experiences and characteristics because this definition more accurately explains the leadership of our respondents. The variables compared across binary sex in this study are individual level variables: gender, self-confidence, attitude toward leadership, and experience. These variables are assessed across self-reported binary sex identification of current and former state supreme court justices.

The results for dramaturgical and actual gender scores indicate that justices in this sample perform slightly left of androgynous, or slightly feminine, on the front stage. One avenue for future research could assess the validity of these scores through an analysis of a broader sample of federal and state judge characteristics. Front stage scores present slightly feminine because of the deliberative and democratic nature of the judiciary. Furthermore, justices are leaders, and the literature shows that the expectations of leaders involve masculine traits.

There is merit to the results of true gender scores. Both male and female respondents report masculine true gender scores, which suggest that justices in this sample are masculine individuals in the back stage, or outside of their leadership roles. A larger sample and more intense survey questionnaire would clarify these results, given that this study received a lower response and the gender score methodology is experimental. Self-confidence scores for females were statistically significantly higher than males. Another path for future research may link the feminine nature of the judiciary to the stronger scores of self-confidence for females, particularly gender performance-conforming females. Scores for attitude toward leadership implicate that justices do not desire to lead. Further research should consider the extent to which judicial occupations differ from other leadership positions and fail to inspire ambition to lead in prospective judges.

In sum, future research should consider the judiciary and the aspects of leadership that surrounds the institution, as this conversation of leadership has only begun. The effectiveness and functionality of the judiciary require a complete understanding of justices and leadership not only in modern times, but historically and quantitatively.

+ Endnotes

[1] In this study, we explain why we temporarily abandon this definition of leader emergence.

[2] Suggested readings are: (Appelbaum, S., Audet, L., & Miller, J. C., 2003; Kolb, J. A., 1999)

[3] We identify and compare differences in leadership variables of interest across survey respondents’ self-reported sex (male or female). It should be noted that our analysis defines gender and sex differently, and that while we may rarely refer to feminine or masculine gender-role or tendency as “sex-role,” these “sex-roles” are social in nature. Suggested literature for any audience is: (Wade, L. & Ferree, M. M., 2015).

[4] The survey acquired information for other purposes than those in this study, and any specific questions about the survey should be directed to Mikel Norris, Ph.D. at Coastal Carolina University (mnorris1@coastal.edu).

[5] The response rate was smaller than desired, but still allows us to conduct an exploratory analysis. Hence, the goal of this study is not to make causal claims or strong conclusions -- it is to consider potential avenues for future leadership research and different ways to think about measuring gender and leadership beyond biological sex.

[6] In addition to exploring research questions about the leadership of state supreme court justices, we are interested in experimenting with gender measurements and challenging core assumptions about gender. Calculations are original theories of gender measurement.

[7] A score which measures dramaturgical gender indicates the gender tendencies one possesses in daily interactions of life.

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