Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Defining Civic Leadership

BOND: But at any rate — talk about civic leadership. What is civic leadership? Civic leadership has got to be different. Take your predecessor, Marion Barry. He's one thing in this period before he becomes a public official, he's another thing when he becomes the mayor. He's a civic leader. What are the differences between these different kinds of leadership, not tied to personalities, but are there differences?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I've studied a lot about cities now, even before I became mayor, but certainly after I'd become mayor. And since ancient times, cities are very, very important. If you think about it, government and cities — even democracy and cities — have gone hand-in-hand. You can go to ancient cities on any continent and they've had some kind of city government roughly of the same kind forever because it hasn't really changed. The provincial government may have changed, state governments may have changed, national governments may have changed, parties and ideology, but the old city, just chugging along. Think of that, you know what I mean?

Accra [Ghana], you know, ancient Andean cities in South America, ancient cities in South? You can go all over the country, you know, Athens, Alexandria and it was always somebody running the city and this person who ran the city — you know, we all learn in civics that there's an executive function and a state function. So your executive function — you know, you're meeting with the public works team and you're talking about picking up the trash, and the state function, "I'm going over to visit with Prince Charles and Camilla because they're visiting a school, because I represent the city." But I think that that is too easy a separation.

Actually, I believe, if you talk about civic leadership, the roles are actually fused, because you actually realize your executive potential by acting in a kind of a like greater — and this kind of like greater role. This kind of urbo-role, you know what I mean? In other words, you're the facilitator and the coordinator of the city. As a leader of the city, because you have this state function, you actually have this indirect supervisory power which is not really explicit. It's kind of latent and implicit over the non-profits in the city and the business people in the city.

You know, if you look at government and you look at — for example, you take the level we commonly analyze at the president: Is the president leading or are his constituency backers leading? Well, who's really leading? Well, you don't really know because there's always this tension. So, same thing with the mayor. Am I leading, or am I just following the business people, or are the business people following me, or who's following whom? Because there's this tension. But your job as the mayor is to coalesce all these different groups around a common goal. That's what I try to do, for example, with the Anacostia River, working with Eleanor [Holmes Norton], is to get all these groups together and between the two of us, using our kind of — this kind of super-leadership role, convene all these people together even though we had no direct managerial authority over them.

BOND: But as a civic leader, in this instance, of the nation's capital city, how do you get the citizenry, both in these organized groups, the business community, the clerical community, whatever — how do you get them to buy in to what your vision is of where the city ought to be, what it ought to do?

WILLIAMS: I think what you try — I always call it super common denominator. The easy thing would be to just figure out everybody, figure out what they all want, figure out the lowest common denominator, and do that. What I always say is try to the super common denominator. The super common denominator is you want to go here, you want to go here, you want to go here, you want to go here, and figure out what's common to all of them, but at the highest level of attainment and realization, and try to get all of you moving in that agenda.

Now, the good thing is because it has enough of what each and everyone of you want jointly and severally, you're more like to get it, but the difficulty of it is it's kind of like in science. You know, there's a stable equilibrium and an unstable equilibrium. The lowest common denominator is a stable equilibrium. It takes a massive, almost nuclear jolt to knock something out of a stable equilibrium, right, because it's stable. You can have an unstable equilibrium, right? But a slight little jolt can knock it off, so, for example, if you look at — if you analyze species and biology, right, a species population level can hit a stable equilibrium. It takes an enormous ecological shock to knock it off that or it can be in an unstable equilibrium where the slightest change can knock that species and send it downward or upward. You know, for fishing populations and stocks are an example of looking at equilibrium or you want to ban whale hunting is an example of that.

BOND: So when baseball wants to come to?

WILLIAMS: "What is he talking about anyway?"

BOND: I got it. I understand it.

WILLIAMS: You know the analogy I'm making?

BOND: Yes, I do, but I want to put in the specific. Baseball wants to come to the city and that requires the city to make some accommodations. How do you find that super level for all the different people — the fans, the businesses? How do you find that? That super level.


BOND: On baseball or anything?

WILLIAMS: The lowest common denominator to me is bring baseball, add some jobs, add some entertainment value, add some luster to the city because baseball's there, even though it's arguable as to whether it's bringing economic benefit. To me, the super common denominator is to say, "Yes, we want to bring baseball. We're even willing to invest in baseball if we know — " Again, hard to achieve. You can knock it off balance.

If we know it's going to actually bring a huge number of jobs to people who live in the city, business opportunities for people who live in the city, expanded tax base for people in the city, multiplier effect. And this is being — this has been proven true, so far so good, with the investment we've made. It's going to have a huge economic effect on the city because we're not like every other city. All these economists who opine on baseball in other cities, I can't speak to that. I'm not running Seattle or, you know, Pittsburgh. I'm running Washington, D.C. and I know in Washington, D.C., because we have such a limited tax jurisdiction, what does that mean? That means anything you bring in here is going to what? Take that spending power not from your jurisdiction most likely just because of its very nature, but from the surrounding area. Now, I don't know whether baseball here has taken money from pursuits people would've realized somewhere else in the region. I actually think it's additional spending money. I don't think it is zero sum, but in any event, even if it is zero sum, it's zero sum on a regional basis, not a District basis.