By Patricia Sellers
May 11, 2010

by Patricia Sellers

Ever since she posed in a judge’s robe, with gavel in hand, for her high school yearbook, Elena Kagan has been navigating her way to the top. Quite deftly — and there are lessons here. Whether the venue is corporate America or the Supreme Court, savvy people management can propel a career.

President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee is a brilliant legal scholar, obviously — and this matters mightily in ruling on the law of the land. But Kagan stands out above her legal crowd as a collegial consensus-builder and just-do-it leader — the pragmatic sort of person you might want as a colleague or a boss.

When she became Dean of Harvard Law School in 2003, the culture was “dysfunctional,” recalls Joe Flom, the legendary M&A lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. A member of the Dean’s Advisory Board at Harvard Law, Flom recalls that the faculty was squabbling back then, while a logjam blocked new appointments. “What she did was amazing,” he says, describing how Kagan urged professors and administrators on the left and the right to get along. “She doesn’t get anyone’s hackles up,” Flom adds. “She just gets it done.”

Another Harvard Advisory board member, onetime

CFO Joy Covey, recalls how Kagan, the first woman to lead the law school, lifted student morale there. Kagan did her community-building via small acts of kindness: flooding a lawn on campus to create an ice rink, putting out free coffee and bagels in the morning, and redesigning spaces in Harkness Commons, the student center. Says Covey: “These were things that didn’t break the bank but said to students, ‘We care about you and about your lives.'”

Kagan, now 50, not only built a good rep with students at Harvard Law School. She also made friends on the Court. Chuck Hieken, a principal at law firm Fish & Richardson in Boston, remembers attending dinners that Kagan, while dean, hosted for conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy upon their 20th anniversaries on the Court. “This is a sign that she’ll get along with the other Justices,” Hieken says.

“Assertive and tough but not abrasive” is the way my colleague, Fortune editor at large Peter Elkind, describes Kagan. They worked together, back in college, on the Daily Princetonian, where she (Class of ’81, summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history) rose to editorial chairman and he (Class of ’80), to editor in chief. “She wasn’t a super-schmoozer,” Elkind recalls, “but she did cultivate relationships well.”

Indeed, what goes around comes around. Kagan’s nomination is a sign that EQ, or emotional intelligence, matters as much as IQ. As the third woman Justice on the nine-person Court, she may well reshape the culture there.

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