Rikleen Institute LLC

The Unintended Leadership Lessons of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby Decision

July 2, 2014

This blog post originally appeared on LinkedIn. To read the full article, click here

The Hobby Lobby case is a setback for the rights of women in America to make personal health care decisions without their employer’s approval. The Supreme Court's ruling also offers a powerful lesson about the importance of leaders understanding – and caring about – the impact of their decisions.

Hobby Lobby has far-reaching implications for millions of women now at risk of losing birth control coverage if they work for one of the estimated 90% of American businesses that are closely-held corporations. The potential scope of this decision cannot be wished away because the majority opinion narrowed its ruling to the specific facts before it.By definition, that is what an appellate court is required to do. The actual reach of any decision comes only later, as lower courts around the country parse the Supreme Court’s words to figure out how to apply a ruling to the next set of facts.

The decision also offers unintended leadership lessons for those in the workplace. For example, the case reinforces the negative consequences that ensue when one group makes decisions that adversely impact the lives of others outside that group.It is hard to believe that nearly a century after women gained the right to vote, five unelected men can make a decision that has sweeping implications for women and women only.And yet, these types of judgments with widespread repercussions are made regularly, not only in the Supreme Court, but in corporate board-rooms and workplaces around the country.

Decades of research in the field of unconscious bias demonstrate that we are all deeply influenced by our life circumstances.Our gender, race, religious affiliation, economic circumstances, friends, teachers, and education are examples of the myriad factors impacting who we are as adults and influencing the judgments and decisions we make personally and professionally. That is why diversity in leadership matters.

But being a voice at the table without the ability to impact the result is simply not enough. In the Hobby Lobby case, the women’s voices at this particular table were in agreement with each other, and essentially dismissed.Moreover, Justice Alito’s opinion spoke volumes about where women’s health interests stand in the Court’s hierarchy of what matters.

In their effort to dispel Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting assertion that the ruling’s scope is far-reaching, the majority opinion suggests limitations of its own opinion.It notes that other health care coverage requirements to which some have religious objections, such as immunizations, may not be subject to the Hobby Lobby reasoning in the future because of the Government’s interest in combatting the spread of infectious disease.The majority apparently views immunization against disease as more important than women’s reproductive health.

Whether leaders are in government, the Supreme Court, or the corner office of our workplace, we hope that they are guided by compassion, fairness, and an understanding of the human implications of their decisions.It is hard to read the Hobby Lobby decision and not feel a loss for all that is missed.

I have long been haunted by an anecdote reported in Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Nines, in which Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas mentions in a speech one of his favorite decisions. Thomas described a “fun little opinion…a little case that didn’t matter to anyone” which involved his researching “the history of trains”.The facts of that case, Toobin noted, involved a badly injured railroad worker who was largely bedridden as a result of his rail accident. As Toobin reported, the decision made it harder for railroad employees “to recover for the horrific accidents that can take place when they climb between two railcars in the process of coupling.” That case, in fact, mattered a great deal to the injured plaintiff and to workers in the railroad industry, but the connection seemed lost in Thomas’ retelling.

Commentary about a “war on women” is more hyperbole than descriptive of what really happened in the Hobby Lobby case.Rather, Hobby Lobby is a case that is far more about indifference to impact than necessarily a desire to cause harm.And that is the essence of the pernicious results of leadership without compassion and decision-making devoid of empathy.