Will You Be an Atticus Finch?

By Elisha Hodge, legal consultant, MTAS

Over the last several months, I have read a number of books about different leadership styles and philosophies as part of the assigned readings for Leadership Academy. To be honest, I enjoyed some way more than others. And while I learned some very valuable lessons through the stories that several of the authors told, I learned more about the type of leader that I want to be from a novel that I read in 8th grade Honors English. Even though I was young and impressionable in the 8th grade, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird had the type of profound impact on me that few fictional novels have had since. In the novel, Lee weaves a rich tale full of suspense, chaos, adversity, and triumph and uses one of her main characters, Atticus Finch, to illustrate the type of authentic, courageous leadership that I strive daily to emulate.

The novel is set against the backdrop of 1930’s rural Maycomb, Ala. The main characters are Atticus Finch, a prominent white attorney who is appointed by the court to represent Tom Robinson, and single father to Jem and Jeanne Louis (Scout), Jem, the oldest of Atticus’ children, Scout, the youngest of Atticus’s children and the narrator of the story, and Tom Robinson, a black farmhand accused of raping a young white woman in Maycomb. While Atticus’ leadership is on constant display throughout the novel, his one display of leadership that most resonates with me occurs shortly before the trial begins. People around town are ridiculing Atticus in public for defending Tom. Intrigued by why her father is representing Tom, Scout asks him why he is doing something so many people are saying that he should not be doing. Atticus responds by telling Scout that he is defending Tom “For a number of reasons. . . The main one is, if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town . . .” (78).  After a brief discussion, Scout asks her father if he is going to win the case. He tells her no, he is not. Confused by why he would not win when he is doing the right thing, Scout asks Atticus why he thinks he is going to lose. Atticus says, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.” (78). Even though Atticus knows that his representation of Tom could be dangerous for both him and his family and will ultimately result in a guilty verdict, his integrity compels him to do what is right, regardless of the consequences.

Ultimately Tom is convicted, but not because Atticus fails to zealously represent him.  Sensing the disappointment that Jem and Scout feel after the trial, Miss Maudie, one of their neighbors, has a conversation with them that really speaks to Atticus’ authentic, courageous leadership. She tells them, “ . . . there are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them . . . Atticus Finch can’t win, he won’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that . . . it’s just a baby-step, but it’s a step.” (219-220)

I am certain that each of you, like me, have had opportunities in your life to display authentic, courageous leadership. And I am also certain that many of you, like me, have not always risen to the occasion. But, tomorrow is another day, filled with all types of new opportunities. If the opportunity presents itself tomorrow, will you choose to be someone’s Atticus Finch?

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1960. New York: Warner Books, 1982.