In the court environment, processes and operations occur in a setting with expectations for performance, efficiency, access, and accountability. These expectations cause court leaders to exercise different roles. This article reviews the roles that a court leader may need to exhibit and master.
Court literature has discussed court leadership roles including the executive team, the concept of productive pairs, and functions and competencies in which court leaders should have proficiency.
Court Leaders as an Executive Team. In the court environment, separate and joint leadership roles are present between presiding judges and court administrators. This has sometimes been referred to as the executive team, with discreet or shared administrative roles. In this concept the presiding or chief judge is responsible for oversight of and carrying out judicial duties (for example, attention to dockets, case decisions) and the court administrator is responsible for areas supporting institutional performance (for example, fiscal/budget, human resources, technology, and facility). Some functions, however, are jointly administered with shared responsibility by the judge and administrator as a team (for example, agency relationships and organizational planning).
Court Leaders as Productive Pairs. This concept recognizes the unique challenges and opportunities for the presiding judge and administrator to be productive in the court environment. Although each may have a different foundation and different knowledge set for their role (judges with legal training, and court administrators with administration and management background), there are expectations that impact how judges and administrators develop skills and execute their functions and roles, including things such as decision-making, collaboration, and interdependent relationships.
Court Leader Functions and Competencies. A publication from the National Association for Court Management (NACM) informs us that court manager duties may vary widely, depending on the court jurisdiction, size, location and authorities assigned or delegated. While the court administrator usually functions in purely administrative roles, duties may include any or all of the following:
In the Core Competences as published by NACM (NACM CORE®) court leader knowledge, skills, and abilities are described within thirteen areas of expertise. These competencies range from leadership to strategic planning to operations and performance accountability.
Within the NACM CORE® competency areas, and within the one on Leadership, there is a section on the various roles that court leaders may be called upon to demonstrate. I explain each below (not in any particular order).
- Communicator. This role embraces activities like convening conversations, encouraging involvement, listening and responsiveness, and being accessible.
- Strategist. As indicated by the title, this role includes establishing strategic directions, engaging with stakeholders, and assessing trends.
- Motivator. This role includes motivating others, being supportive of teams, connecting with others, and building a culture of trust.
- Diagnostician. Here the role entails conducting analysis, evaluating causes and effects, and making use of performance measures.
- Collaborator. This role involves building consensus, understanding organizational dynamics, and establishing relationships.
- Statesman (or, stated more neutrally, advisor). This role exhibits acting as a wise, skilled, and respected public sector leader.
- Visionary. Here the role involves focusing on the goal, purpose, and vision, with clear priorities and being proactive.
- Innovator. In this role, a leader is a change agent, taking risks on new initiatives or reengineering processes, with willingness to fail, and deploying strategies.
The chart below graphically portrays these roles.
I have presented on the topic of court leadership at a variety of court conferences between 2017 and 2019. During those conferences, participants were asked to choose the single role that they considered the most important. I have tabulated the votes about what they indicated as the most important role in their work world. The results are very informative. In the chart below I have presented the votes as percentages based upon the total number of participants and number of votes for each role. Ratings of less than 3% are not included (those cells are blank). I have coded the highest score from each group as the darker gray shade. The next most popular score for each group is noted in the lighter gray shade.
Of interest, one role repeatedly received the highest votes – that of communication. Other roles were not consistently rated as high. Based upon these simple calculations, communication was most important to the respondents, with the next strongest as motivator, and then collaborator. The least important were statesman (advisor) and diagnostician.
Using these popularity votes, what are some conclusions?
- The results present interesting and varying views of different role importance. You could observe that these highly rated roles involve leadership “soft skills” – in other words, skills and attributes that allow us to interact effectively with others.
- The time and place of voting on these roles may cause different preferences or priorities for which role is important to the participants. The focus on a role may be based upon the pressures at the moment, workplace culture influences, and current demands upon the leader.
- Vote differences may also vary based upon each respondent’s job title and the actual authorities given to the individual. The conferences were comprised of different mixes of attendees. Some had a mix of bailiffs, court clerks, probation staff, division or unit managers, and court administrators. Some were attended by only court administrators.
- At different times, court leaders may consciously be called upon or intentionally decide to exhibit different skills and roles based upon the situation.
Ultimately, reflecting on these roles and noting how court colleagues have ranked them may inspire us to consider when and how we use these different roles, or, how we might develop our proficiencies across these roles to be an effective leader.
Should you have an opinion and want to weigh in on which role YOU consider as most important in YOUR work life, please write and let us know!
 R. Dale Lefever, “Judge-Court Manager Relationships: The Integration of Two Cultures,” The Court Manager, National Association for Court Management, Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer 1990, and John M. Greacen, “ An Administrator’s Perspective: Relationships Between Judges and Court Administrators,” The Judges Journal, Vol. 40, No.4, Fall 2001, and E. Keith Stott, “The Judicial Executive: Toward Greater Congruence in an Emerging Profession,” The Justice System Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1982.
 Mary Campbell McQueen, “Two Sides of the Gavel, or Court Leaders as Productive Pairs,” Trends in State Courts, National Center for State Courts, 2015, and Mary Campbell McQueen, Governance: The Final Frontier, Perspectives on State Court Leadership, Executive Session for State Court Leaders in the 21st Century, National Center for State Courts, June 2013.
 The Court Administrator, A Guide and Manual, National Association for Court Management, January 2011, and (updated version) The Court Administrator – Court Administration: A Guide to the Profession, National Association for Court Management, September 2016, available at https://nacmnet.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Court-Manual-final_print.pdf .