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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Sally Yates Played Her Political Trump Card Well

Sally Yates

Sally Yates

What Ethical Leadership Looks Like

Ann Skeet

This article was originally published in MarketWatch on January 31, 2017.

Irony has been in abundance during week one of the Trump administration.

The president, a businessman by training and experience, is using laws to their fullest extent to fulfill his campaign promises. And our nation’s now-fired top attorney, acting attorney general Sally Yates, played her political trump card to avoid upholding laws that are leading to unethical acts. It’s a wake up call from Yates to Congress to do its job.

Yates has shown us what ethical leadership looks like. In addition to assessing the situation through the lens of law, she cited the obligations of her duties in her dissenting memo to Department of Justice attorneys. She played her position, attending to the interests she was charged to protect in her role as attorney general.

In the four-paragraph letter she sent to Justice Department attorneys on Monday, Yates took care to note the specific duties she had in her acting role and how the DOJ’s responsibilities differ from other legal offices in government. Yates seized the opportunity to put a marker down for moral justice — she had little to lose personally by being fired for ordering Justice Department lawyers not to defend President Trump’s executive order suspending immigration from seven majority Muslim countries.

The hearings for her successor as attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, unfold this week. Yates understood the power she had as well as President Trump understands his. She saw his bet and raised hers and he raised his, unafraid of drawing comparisons to his classic line from his reality TV show: “You’re fired.”

Trump is experienced at using laws, “the system” as he so eloquently described it, to their full advantage — even if the outcome is perverse. Trump is a student of human nature and loopholes, and he is adept at bringing them together to assure his supporters he has understood what they wanted him to do.

Yates proved equally adept at using politics when the law was being used, in her opinion, to achieve unjust ends. Yates stood her ground. Her commitment to her work and the role she was in, even only temporarily, is commendable.

Throughout this last election cycle and in the months since, we have seen people in leadership roles struggle. Do they speak out because their role requires it of them, or do they keep their counsel to avoid using their positions incorrectly to influence the outcome of elections? Along the way, each person has had to decide which to place first: her own interest; her political party’s, or the interests she is charged to protect.

In the past 48 hours we have seen a great awakening of leadership in America. Fueled by the people and their response to this elected government, men and women in leadership roles that by definition require them to subvert their own interests to those of the people are figuring it out.

Over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated that “We don’t have religious tests in this country.” In fact, the laws Trump used to enact this immigration ban are silent on the matter of religion. One could consider the law flawed for omitting this, or consider this to be the test where we learn how important that omission is.

Regardless, each human being, especially those in formal leadership positions, can still decide what is right and just. Those who are willing to give voice to justice are practicing ethical leadership. What Trump is offering is legal leadership, I suppose, but this is not generally touted as a virtue.

Laws are created by lawmakers, upheld or struck down by courts, and used by executives. Nothing prevents a senator, an attorney, or an executive from deciding that just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. Thank goodness Sally Yates had the personal courage to say so.

Ann Skeet is the director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. The expressed views are her own.

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Jan 31, 2017

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