Whenever I’m running a workshop on leadership, I ask participants to tell me who their leadership role model is. Their influences tell me a lot about their values and what they’re probably like in the workplace. On 5th May, the journalist Rachel Maddow reported the contents of a conversation with US Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein at the Cap Ideas Conference. In a wide-ranging discussion with law professor Ronald Collins, Rosenstein answered questioned about his leadership at the Justice Department. In an amusing moment, Collins handed Rosenstein a piece of paper. “It’s not a subpoena is it?” Rosenstein quipped.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein

It wasn’t, in fact, a subpoena. What came next was a fascinating insight into what drives Rod Rosenstein. Collins handed Rosenstein the piece of paper, and asked him to read aloud the words of a ‘famous American.’ On the paper was a quote. And beyond the quote itself, there were no other identifying features on that piece of paper, a point Collins reinforced to the audience.

Nevertheless, Rosenstein recognised the quote immediately as being the concluding paragraph in an address to the US Attorney General Robert H. Jackson gave on 1st April 1940 titled The Federal Prosecutor. Not only did Rosenstein recognise the quote immediately, he clearly knew the words of The Federal Prosecutor off by heart.

The reason Rosenstein was so familiar with this quote was it came from his personal hero and leadership role model: Robert H. Jackson. Rosenstein admires Robert H. Jackson, so much so that he had a painting of him hung in his conference room. And that portrait sits over Rosenstein’s shoulder as he hosts meetings at his conference table. Everybody who sits at that conference table can see Jackson looming over Rosenstein’s shoulder, watching everything Rosenstein says and does.

Before I watched that episode of The Rachel Maddow Show, I wasn’t familiar with Robert H. Jackson’s story. Needless to say I looked him up straightaway to find out more about the man who is a touchstone for Rod Rosenstein. Jackson’s is a fascinating story that has a special relevance in today’s world.


Jackson was born in Pennsylvania and raised in New York. With only a modest education and no college degree, he spent approximately 20 years as a successful attorney in Jamestown before going to Washington. He served as Solicitor General in the Department of Justice under FDR, was appointed Attorney General, and subsequently appointed Supreme Court Justice where he presided over a number of historic decisions including Brown v. the Board of Education.

In 1945, President Harry S. Truman appointed Jackson (who took a leave of absence from the Supreme Court), as U.S. Chief of Counsel for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. He helped to draft the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal, which created the legal basis for the Nuremberg Trials.

Jackson was of the view, along with President Truman and several high-ranking members of his administration, that the victory about to be secured by the Allies should be ended with a civilized proceeding where a court of law would judge the guilt or innocence of the major Nazi figures. Not all of the Allied nations held this view; some thought summary executions should be held, or that a brief court's martial proceedings would be sufficient to ensure punishment.

For two months during the summer of 1945, Jackson worked at achieving a consensus among the Allies and was finally successful when an Agreement between the American, British, French, and Soviet governments was signed on August 8th. This Agreement, called the London Charter, became the basis for the trials before the International Military Tribunal held in Nuremberg between 18 October, 1945 and 1 October, 1946.

It was through the energy, intelligence and leadership of Justice Jackson that these trials were organized, standards of evidence developed, rights of defendants defined, and prosecutorial action commenced. Not simply America's Chief Prosecutor, Jackson was the driving force behind the conduct of the trials themselves.

Some in the United States, including fellow members of the Supreme Court, criticized Jackson's decision to undertake this effort. Never before had standards been established that defined aggressive war, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. The precedent was established that individuals could be found personally liable for committing such atrocities. It wasn’t a defense to say "I was ordered by Hitler to do it". A defendant could be found guilty of their commission, if they were knowingly committed.

Jackson's brilliance and courage in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice set a new standard in the field of international law. It remains the standard to which the world looks today when it comes to trying individuals who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity.

After Nuremberg, Jackson returned to the Supreme Court and continued to play a profound role in decisions that impacted a changing nation, including those involving Civil Rights, racial integration, and the religious rights of individuals.

In 1954, aged just 62, Jackson suffered a fatal heart attack. He is buried in the Maple Grove Cemetery in nearby Frewsburg, New York, under a simple headstone that reads: "He kept the ancient landmarks and built the new."

Reading about him, it’s apparent that Jackson’s unique life and accomplishments continue to have a remarkable relevance in today’s world. The ideals of justice and fairness that he stood for are timeless.

In these febrile times, Robert H. Jackson’s address, The Federal Prosecutor, is well worth reading.


My own leadership role model is Nelson Mandela. For me, Mandela embodies the principle of being the change you wish to see. He demonstrated that people are capable of change if they are committed to doing so. He embodied the tenets of grace and compassion under fire, and of living your values. And he exemplified the quality of magnanimity.

Question: Who are your leadership role models? What lessons have you taken from their examples? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share in the comments box below.


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