Leadership by Default
In keeping with Black History Month, the opening of the movie “Selma’ and the Martin Luther King birthday and weekend celebrations, the January 13, 2015, online edition of Rolling Out Magazine addressed the issue of black leadership. The article “Black Leaders Like it or not Speak for the Masses” listed the Minister Louis Farrakhan, Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton and President Barack Obama, as leaders of the Black community. It states in part:
“[T]he Black community is once again at a watershed moment. Because of the increasing issues of social justice and equal protection under the law, as a collective Blacks need a voice in America. Like it or not, these Black leaders speak for a divergent and diverse minority community.”
We agree as to the need for Black leadership and we honor the contributions of the above referenced individuals. Nonetheless, while Farrakhan, Jackson, Sharpton and the President are indeed Black and have taken leadership positions on issues of importance to the Black community, these facts in and of themselves do not make them leaders of the Black community.
No consensus has been reached as to who speaks for African-Americans and outside of the President, no elections have been held. And even here, President Obama represents not just Blacks but the entire country. Instead what we are experiencing is leadership by default and understandably so. What we are requiring of the next African-American leader is simply too great to ask.
The problems confronting us are daunting. Dealing with the political and structural challenges of the Black community, halting the growing economic, cultural and generational divide, reconciling our disparate values and visions, correcting our penchant for ‘form over substance’ and our tendency towards meaningless symbolism, not to mention addressing the “third rail” of African-American politics, i.e., our own misconduct and acts of bad faith, are impossible tasks, at least of one man.
The required communication, organizing and leadership skills are more than monumental. It is not enough to have a clear vision of our future. The next leader must also persuasively articulate said vision to a despondent people, persuade us to embrace it, model the way and then lead us to a better tomorrow.
And while leadership has its privileges, the life of the next great African-American leader will not be easy. The Sophie’s Choice of ‘can we save everyone and should we even try’ will immediately confront him.
He will be required to ask that which few leaders, black or white dare to ask i.e., more of his own than of others; to absolve the past, to forgive those who have trespassed against us both black and white and that we pursue something far greater than our resentment, our doubts and our fears. And he must do so in a way that is neither self-righteous nor judgmental. Few possess such skills.
Harms way will be his abode and no matter how well-intentioned, he will be misunderstood and condemned, abandoned and betrayed. To merely survive these and other challenges, his skim must be thick as a brick and his resolve unshakable. And even then, like Martin, Malcolm and other greats before him, the ultimate sacrifice may be his ultimate destiny.
This is the “ask’ of the next African-American leader. And this is why there are no heirs apparent. Those who have the ability to lead are reluctant to do so and with good reason. The risk is far too great and the potential rewards are far too small. Why would anyone with the necessary intellect or clout risk themselves and their well-being for such a thankless job?
Thus, the notion of a single leader of Black people is both unrealistic and counter productive. No such person can or should speak for all African-American any more than a single person can lead the entirety of any other ethnic group. We therefore offer the following suggestion.
Instead of a powerful, galvanizing figure like an ‘X’, who amply demonstrates the virility of African-American society, we would be better served by an organizer who effectively manages the various stakeholders, camps and movements within the Black community. Rather than a photogenic, charismatic wordsmith like a ‘King’, who plays well to the spotlight, the leader for our time may be a quiet man who neither seeks nor desires attention; one who instead prefers the shadows.
Finally, preferable to a new leader or a new type of leader perhaps what we really need is a new leadership paradigm; a novel way of leading and of being led. Put differently, maybe what we need is not so much a new leader, but a tactician, a strategist, a visionary who not only thinks but demands it of others? We could do no worse by adopting this strategy than our current trajectory of leadership by default.
Food for thought!
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO
Blackacre Policy Forum