08/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Sotomayor/Obama Business Model

Ornery senators and the cable news pundits don't know what to make of her. We've all heard about her passion on the bench and this so-called temperament, but all we've seen during the Sotomayor Senate confirmation hearings is a serious jurist who describes her commitment to the rule of law with a staccato cadence. Everyone is waiting for the fire and fury, which is starting to seem more like a myth or a misplaced stereotype. Even when Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, unconvincingly joked "you have some 'splaining to do", a la Desi Arnez she laughed off the inappropriate Hispanic reference. As Judge Sotomayor keeps her eye on the highest bench in the nation, a job she will keep for life, she was probably laughing at Coburn rather than with him. Craftily, she has put any feisty emotion in her back pocket. There is a lesson in these confirmation hearings for today's upwardly mobile but professionally stymied minority. Sometimes it's ok to give the real you a vacation.

Now there are the well-schooled minorities with prestigious pedigrees who believe that he or she can bring his whole or herself to the workplace--at all times. Many would equate restraint with selling out. Why should they have to muzzle any aspect of their being to move ahead in an interview? Many are probably attacking Sotomayor for letting Sen. Coburn get away with the Desi Arnez quip. (The jibe was bad enough, but he didn't even get her ethnicity right. A Puerto Rican would never say "'splaining"; that's so Cuban.) Drawing from the "keeping it real" theme, the post-Civil Rights era has yielded a 21st Century sense of self-actualization, confidence, and bravado that fuels some minorities to crash through a glass, bamboo, or you name it type of ceiling head on.

However, Judge Sotomayor seems to be following the Obama business model for deconstructing barriers.

Ceilings, whether made of glass, bamboo, or cement, are the metaphors for the systems that have historically blocked the advancement of women, racial minorities, and other non-white male heterosexuals. While President Obama's win is groundbreaking--he is the first black president; the first president who could hold dual citizenship with the U.S. and Kenya; and he's one of the only national role models for black men outside of entertainment and sports--I would argue that he didn't break any ceilings. He smartly moved from underneath them.

The institutions and systems that construct ceilings are nothing more than well-organized individuals who coalesce out of a common effort--whether conscious or unconscious-- to oppress others. Throughout Election '08 there were a number of antics designed to destroy Mr. Obama. The architects of the glass ceiling went through great panes to build him into a terrorist, a Muslim extremist, and just un-American.

President Obama, though, outsmarted his detractors who were as dense as the blocks of glass they hoisted in his path. Rather than trying to break, shatter or crack the glass ceiling, Mr. Obama and his team gracefully moved to a room where the ceiling had not yet been assembled. He was too smart to fight fire with fire. Instead, with every speech, he focused on giving the voters what they wanted: hope in our economy, national security and foreign diplomacy.

In today's workplace, even with a Black President, there are still ceilings of all varieties. Mr. Obama is a fine example of how a diversity of strong alliances with strategic responses can slip past them.

Judge Sotomayor is following the Obama model by staying cool and avoiding any ceilings during her confirmation proceedings. Even as Sen. Lindsey Graham patronizingly asked, "Do you think you have a temperament problem?," she respectfully answered, "No Sir." She has not gone off on anyone and the safe bet is that she will not. Rather than making a splash and expressing the controversial beliefs that she may express at a law school, this wise Latina is seeping her personality, culture and perspective with all deliberate speed. With the help of good coaches and handlers, she is not going to have a meltdown and she is going to get confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Similarly, minority professionals must build strong alliances and pick their battles wisely. Sometimes we need to sidestep the stupidity of Coburnesqe jokes and focus on landing the plum positions, where we can make change from the top. As a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Judge Sotomayor will not only be integral to shaping the legal landscape of our country by deciding landmark constitutional cases, but she will also be in a position to hire law clerks. Just imagine the day when Sen. Coburn's niece, nephew or child of a family friend applies for a coveted clerkship with Justice Sotomayor. That candidate will probably think twice before making any lame Latino references.