What my mother-in-law, Sandra Day O’Connor, taught me about leadership.

I have the privilege to work closely with many leaders and to observe how they navigate their worlds effectively so that others are committed and together something better is created—whether that is new policy and programs, or breakthrough technologies and services.

Sixteen years ago, I married Jay O’Connor, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s youngest son. As part of the O’Connor family, I have had many blessings. One has been to observe the many qualities that make my mother-in-law such an effective and beloved leader. No doubt, you are familiar with her service on the US Supreme Court. But her work with iCivics, which she founded in 2009, is equally inspiring to me.

Retiring from the Supreme Court

Sandra chose to step down from the court in 2006 at age 76 to care for her husband, John. As his Alzheimer’s advanced, she asked herself what she would do with the rest of her life.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor | Corcoran Leadership
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with other members of the Supreme Court

This was a hard moment for her: she had given up work that was deeply meaningful. Jay and I were with her one day when she wondered with great sadness if her time of contribution was over.

Before long, she gave birth to iCivics, a nonprofit that brings civics education alive for young people. She had become very worried by what she saw as a growing lack of understanding among citizens about the fundamental concepts of our government, our Constitution, and the importance of civic engagement.

Creating Something from Nothing

When she dug into this problem, she saw that civics education had largely disappeared from US school curricula. Her vision was to develop a solution that wouldn’t simply educate students but would inspire them to participate in democracy.

iCivics inspired by Sandra Day O’Connor | Corcoran Leadership
iCivics was Sandra’s vision to inspire kids to participate in democracy.

Rather than revive the old civics lesson plans, she was inspired by Silicon Valley to create interactive video games that would teach young people how government works.

The idea of gaming as a teaching tool was in its infancy and she knew nothing about it, but Sandra learned and created an organization that solves an important societal problem and that brought a new mission to her life. She worked passionately on behalf of iCivics—giving speeches around the country, raising money and providing direction—until very recently.

Today, the iCivics program provides quality, non-partisan, and truly engaging civic education to more than half of all middle and high school students in all 50 states. My husband Jay and his brothers Scott and Brian are continuing to carry the torch for iCivics, along with a very dedicated staff and Board that includes Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In the Fox TV interview below, Jay shares his mother’s passion about iCivics.

While Sandra has had many big moments, I want to share a few small, personal ones that have taught me important lessons of leadership.

1  | Service

Serving others is in her bones. In the first year of his presidency, President Obama awarded Sandra the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As part of the celebration, each award recipient had a private conversation with the President.

Sandra Day O’Connor receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom | Corcoran Leadership
President Obama awards Sandra Day O’Connor the Presidential Medal of Freedom

We asked her what they talked about. Sandra said, “I told him that we needed more women on the Supreme Court.” In a moment that was a celebration of her, where the conversation could have been about her, she chose to speak about what she believed the country needed.

2  | Relationships

Sandra built and maintains strong relationships. At every organization she has been involved in, she has lived her philosophy that the key to making things happen is bringing people with different perspectives together to get to know and understand one another.

On the Supreme Court, her colleague, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said about Sandra: “She has done more to promote collegiality among the court’s members, and with our counterparts abroad, than any other Justice, past or present.

In fact, she makes friends from all walks of life. In 2004, I joined her on a safari in South Africa and Botswana organized by Kathleen Smalley, one of her first law clerks. It was my mother-in-law’s first trip to South Africa—she had been invited many times, but would not go when the country was under Apartheid.

Sandra Day O’Connor visits the South African Supreme Court and the Apartheid museum
Sandra Day O’Connor visits the South African Supreme Court and the Apartheid museum

She was deeply moved by our visit to the South African Supreme Court where she heard stories about the work her counterparts were doing to establish constitutional law in the country.

What sticks out most in my mind from that trip was how much Sandra connected with our safari guide, Anthony Bennett (known as Ant). Sandra appreciated Ant’s commitment to and knowledge of African wildlife. When she heard that he had never been to the U.S, she invited him to visit her in Washington DC. Ant ended up staying in her home and then staying with the O’Connors in Phoenix and with us in San Francisco.

She went all out for her friends, both new and old, and it’s something that I saw and experienced many times.

3  | Play

Sandra worked hard throughout her life. While undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, she didn’t miss a day of work on the Court. But she also loved to play.

She has an enormous appetite for sports (skiing, golfing, tennis, fly fishing, dancing), the arts (music, theater, fine art) and travel. And she loves to laugh until the tears roll down her cheeks.

Play and laughter were essential elements of her leadership. They recharged and rejuvenated her so that she could keep showing up to do the hard work with energy and passion. Play is something that some leaders struggle with, but Sandra showed me how important it is.

Sandra Day O’Connor and I off to play | Corcoran Leadership
Kathleen Smalley, Sandra and I off to play

The Humanity of Leadership

Clearly much has been written about Sandra’s intelligence, commitment, energy, and mastery of constitutional law. The qualities of creativity, service, caring and play that I witnessed were ones that brought her humanity to her tremendous skill.

That humanity is very present today in her openness about stepping back from the active life she loved due to dementia. Anyone who has had a loved one with dementia, and more than 5.7 million Americans do, knows it is hard for everyone. So in this time of transition, we are grateful to be open about this condition and to hear how Sandra has touched others. With this, I want to add my voice to appreciating her and remembering the power of her lessons.

To honor her and in gratitude for the work I have the privilege of doing with creative and caring leaders, I am making a contribution to iCivics. If you are so moved to join me, the whole O’Connor family and iCivics thank you!

More on Sandra Day O’Connor

To learn more about Sandra Day O’Connor and her legacy visit the resources below:

  1. | Learn more about iCivics + how to support their work with a charitable donation
  2. | Sandra Day O’Connor’s letter to America about her dementia and personal thoughts | New York Times, October 23, 2018
  3. | Interview with Jay O’Connor about his mother’s legacy | CBS This Morning, October 25, 2018
  4. | Life’s Work: An Interview with Sandra Day O’Connor | Harvard Business Review, December 2013
  5. | First | An intimate, inspiring, and authoritative biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, drawing on exclusive interviews and first-time access to archives by New York Times bestselling author, Evan Thomas.

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