Black Leaders on Leadership

Mar 13, 2015

You might not expect Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to have anything in common with Angela Davis, a counterculture activist and radical in the1960s, but a unique program at the University of Virginia finds qualities that many black leaders share.

Long-time civil rights activist Julian Bond and fellow history professor Phyllis Leffler wondered about the nature of leadership and whether it was somehow different for people who came from the black community.  They spent 14 years studying the subject  -- interviewing 51 prominent people - among them, former Governor Doug Wilder, poet Nikki Giovanni and choreographer Bill T. Jones.  Leffler concluded they did not often fit the mainstream American stereotype.

“If you pick up any book on leadership and it’s mostly going to be about white corporate America. That’s sort of our model for leaders.”

But like their white counterparts, Bond says these leaders in the African-American community were molded by mainstream institutions - schools, churches and community organizations.

“A relatively large number of these men were active in the Boy Scouts. It just showed me one of the paths to leadership is joining an organization that taught discipline and good behavior.”

The interviews bring out moments of insight, comedy, debate, and disagreement. Bond, for example, recalls his conversation with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas:

 “A justice said years ago that if you want to get beyond race you have to go to race.

Clarence Thomas: That was justice Blackman, yeah, I don’t know what that means.

Julian Bond: I think it means that you can’t talk about remedies to race unless those remedies have some race consciousness in them.

Yeah, I still don’t know. I’ve read that and read it and re-read it and I don’t know. In order to be dry you must be wet, I don’t know.”

Phyllis Leffler

Professor Leffler says participants in the project shared some experiences -- sticking with principles in the face of adversity and trying to “lift as they climbed” a tenant in the African American community, which entails reaching down to help those less fortunate.

“They tell us about a style of leadership. A set of values tied to their leadership that is tied to the principle of racial uplift and reaching back into the community to help others along the way. ”

Other findings are included in their new book -- “Black Leaders on Leadership: Conversations with Julian Bond.