Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Staying True to the Mission

BOND: Some people characterize the making of leaders in three ways: (a) great people cause great events, (b) movements make leaders, (c) the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. What about you? What was your path to leadership?

CANADA: This is the thing that I think young people who often want — they ask me if I have a couple of hours to mentor them and what they really want to know is can you tell me how to get where you are and what the secret sauce is in doing that and I remind people that I’ve been here twenty-five years. That’s the first thing and I say, you know, for fifteen of those years, ain’t nobody know who I was. That wasn't — there never was a plan that somebody would say, well, how do you get from here to there. That was never the plan. My leadership really was focused around an issue and trying to solve that issue and just staying focused on that issue and by the way, I never thought that anyone would ever necessarily take any notice of this work which is part of — I’m still with some guys I went to school with from Bowdoin and they work here with me now and we’ll get in the office and we still laugh. Can you imagine? Anybody ever thought that anybody would care about this stuff? It’s just hard for us to believe, so the first thing I think is that this was all around mission. We saw something that we cared passionately about and we said that we’re going to try and figure out how to solve this and we were prepared to work on this until we died and we thought it was important and it was worth doing and no one ever — no one thought you were going to make any money. No one thought there was any fame, and by the way, most of us didn’t even think the people we were helping were necessarily even going to like us that much. It wasn’t like they were going to applaud for you. We are doing tough stuff. That work, I think this focus on can we solve this problem, is I think, in the end, how I would describe the leadership.

Now, for us to get here, there had to be some opportunistic things that happened that we had to be prepared to take advantage of. That’s absolutely true and so when opportunities presented themselves, we tried to grab those opportunities to sort of leverage our work and move forward with that work, and I think we’ve been good about doing that but if I had this program and no one knew anything about the program and no one knew who I was and no one even came to look, I would like to think that I would feel no different about this work than I do right now. It never was for any of those other kinds of things. I had a young person who I’ve known for many — I knew her when she was a little girl and she now is a teacher and she’s going for her master’s degree and we had lunch the other day and I was just looking at her remembering when she was eleven and her being so scared that she didn’t have the right stuff, that she just wasn’t going to make it and she was talking about she was going on a trip to Africa and she was going with a friend and they were going to go on safari. I’m just looking at her thinking and this is what I was telling my wife, my wife knows her also, and we just got the biggest kick out of knowing that that’s the promise of this work, that after a while no one knows anything about that. She doesn’t have to tell that story with her life, but she’s having a good life and, you know, for some number of kids we’ve made a difference, so I think that if you’re looking —

There are some people who want to be leaders, right, and they want to take leadership development because they want to be leaders and that’s a path to leadership that I am somewhat doubtful about and the reason I’m doubtful about it is that when we bring young people into the organization and they ask about leadership, we say the leader is usually the one who works the hardest, the one who works holidays, the one who works weekends. When we’re doing something Christmas, they’re the ones who work on Christmas and they can do that year after year after year and people want to take my job because, oh, I’m going to be the leader leader. I want to be in the room, in the office, and we say, no, no, no, no, we don’t think that’s the way to leadership. Leaders do what needs to be done, whatever it is, and they do it for as long as it needs to be done and they can outwork everybody else and they never lose touch with what the mission is and if the mission is, let’s move the chairs and make this place — then that’s what we do and the moment that you think the leader tells everybody else what to do, we think you’ve lost sort of the essence of the kind of leadership that we’re trying to do here and if you look at my agency, there’re people who’ve come up through the agency and one of the reasons I think we’re able to do the work is that the leaders have learned a set of academic and professional skills while at the same time doing that in tough, long, hard service to their community and I think the two of those of things —

So, they are now the guardians of the gate. So, if you want to be a leader, they're like, well yeah, well, how many weekends did you work and how many years have you — and I just think that that’s a different level of leadership because it’s leadership that comes not only from hard work and study but also from service and you never forget who the client is and the client is not you and your leadership skills or your, I think, celebrity. The client really are those young people or those families or whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish, so I think that’s how we see leadership here in the organization.