Friday, August 11, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Sally Yates on your moral compass

Fired from her transitional post as Acting U.S. Attorney General by the White House after she refused to defend or enforce President Donald Trump's travel ban on Muslims coming into the United States, Sally Yates went from relatively unknown to famous in a short span. She had instructed Justice Department lawyers not to defend the administration's executive order on immigration and refugees, a move that the White House dubbed "a betrayal," and fired her for speaking her mind and giving her considered legal opinion.

In May, Yates addressed the graduating class at Harvard Law School, and looked back on her own legal career--much of it spent as a career civil servant prosecutor at the Department of Justice--to share four lessons with the graduates. Lesson two? "You never know when a situation will present itself in which you will have to decide who you are and what you stand for." She reviewed what happened in her decision-making on the travel ban, noting that it didn't just take place in the 72 hours between the ban's announcement and her directive to the department, but in all the years that preceded that moment in her career. Here's the advice she distilled for the graduates:
The compass that is inside all of us, that compass that guides us in times of challenge, is being built every day with every experience. I was fortunate to have learned from some inspiring people in my life who not only served as role models, but who challenged my thinking on issues and molded my core. 
Over the course of your life and career, you, too, will face weighty decisions where law and conscience intertwine. And while it may not play out in such a public way, the conflict you will feel will be no less real, and the consequences of your decisions also significant. The time for introspection is all along the way, to develop a sense of who you are and what you stand for. Because you never know when you will be called upon to answer that question.
Leaders in all sorts of organizations might read this speech while keeping in mind the recent survey data that show that employees are happiest when leaders have a moral compass and the employees feel they will "do the right thing." What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Get your listeners thinking about their own experience: "The time for introspection is all along the way," she said, taking what was, on its face, a very public dilemma and turning it into a mental exercise anyone in the audience could do--a fantastic way to engage your listeners.
  • Pay your respects: As with any formal commencement, Yates's insights did not begin until she had worked through the formal thanks, congratulations, and inclusion of the variety of listeners at graduation events, from faculty to parents. Every speech has jobs to do, and that's a big one for a commencement speech.
  • If you can, let us behind the scenes: Part of what's irresistible about this speech is that it shares Yates's thinking and her side--the inside--of a very public and controversial story. She does it justice with an even-handed, straightforward delivery. There's no need to dramatize the events further.
You can read the full text of her speech here, and watch the video here or below.




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