Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Strategy

BOND: In a slightly connected vein, do you think you have a different style of leadership or perhaps a different style of presentation when you are dealing with a group that's all white, when you are dealing with a group that's all black, and when you are dealing with a group that is composed of lots of different people?

CHAMBERS: Well, in one sense I think that I would be guilty of that. Particularly when I really want to get a group to support a particular idea and I am trying to pull together the best approach for achieving that objective. When I am not that concerned and I am more concerned with pointing out the inequities of practices, I wouldn't care, and I would tell people, whatever their race or gender, that there was a problem that we really ought to address. You know, I think that all of us have to appreciate that what I say as a black person in a black environment may not be convincing to a group of Hispanics, whatever I'm talking about. And it may not be true or acceptable to a group of Asians and all that. And one then really has to figure out the best way to present an issue for the culture of the people with whom one is talking. And so, it may require that one say something differently.

BOND: Is there a universal style and language? And if there is, is that desirable or are these separate approaches going to be with us and are perfectly reasonable for many, many years to come?

CHAMBERS: I don't know about the latter – perfectly reasonable – but I certainly expect it. One day, I believe, we will get to the point where we can talk with and deal with people of all races and nationalities without regard to their particular language. But I don't know of any universal language today.

BOND: But shouldn't there be? Should we be striving for a universality of presentation? Universality of argument?

CHAMBERS: One would hope that we are doing that. But, you know, I watch the argument now about English-only approaches. I know that a number of non English-speaking people are very much offended by that practice. If English were to be a universal language, it could help ease communication. But it wouldn't necessarily mean that folk who are not English-speaking people would be that happy with that approach. I think what we are fighting now is a prejudice that is very deep within all of us. And we all have to keep working to educate people and helping to encourage people to learn to respect everyone else and to appreciate that what I may be saying or you may be saying, whatever language, is designed to really provide opportunities for them.

BOND: But in the United States both black and white people speak English and can understand each other generally when they are talking across racial lines. But there're admittedly different styles one might employ, you might employ if you are speaking to the all-black Links [Inc.] and another style you might employ if you are speaking to the all-white Rotary Club. Do you think if the Rotary Club people saw you talking to the Links they might think, "Ooh, that's not the same guy we saw who spoke to us last week," and vice versa? Would it be jarring for these audiences?

CHAMBERS: Well, you pit the Links and the Rotary.

BOND: Yeah, maybe that's not –

CHAMBERS: What I would talk to the Links about would not necessarily be the same thing that I would talk to the Rotary about. But the language used or the approach would likely be –

BOND: Let's say the Rotary and the Prince Hall Masons.

CHAMBERS: Yeah. Well, well, the approach would likely for those groups be the same. I think that with the Prince Hall Masons that you're dealing with a group that is knowledgeable about a number of things and will understand positions that one may be advancing. And the Rotary would also be knowledgeable about positions. So one can basically say what one would like to say without fear of antagonizing a lot of people in that respect.

BOND: Well, the Rotary might not be – they might be receptive, but they might not be initially sympathetic. You might have a greater convincing job to do with the Rotary.

CHAMBERS: That's a different question. And you are right. Whether whatever one is saying is going to convince anybody. But I would imagine, from what I know about Prince Hall and the Rotary, that the groups I know would be receptive to an approach that was basically the same.

BOND: I want to go back to something we had talked about a short while ago, and that is what kind of strategies do you use, do you employ in speaking to different groups of people, not necessarily racially different, but just different? For example, in your position you've to talk to legislators. I am guessing that is one strategy. You've got to talk to alumni. I am guessing that's – How do you address these different groups?

CHAMBERS: Well, the legislators, we generally appeal for them to provide support for a fledgling HBCU, that has in our case been neglected over the years and that is at the threshold of really developing some programs, etc. I always took the approach, I never wanted, didn't think that I would actually want it, that North Carolina Central was built as a counterpart to the University of North Carolina. And we at Central should not rest until we have the exact equivalent. Well, obviously that has ruffled a lot of feathers. But people have appreciated the need for doing a lot more than they have been doing. When they look at it from that historical perspective with the alumni, we talk about loyalty to an institution and how it has progressed and where we think it is going and why we need their support in order to get where we are moving. Showing that we have been able to do some things with their help and then talking about some other things that we can do.

BOND: Well, what you are describing is a different approach based on the demand or request that you are making of these different groups of people. What about altering your approach depending on who they are? Not so much as because of what they can offer you, but just because of who they are? Legislators are politicians. Alumni are a wide variety of different kinds of people. Potential contributors are yet a third – business people in the Triangle area. Do you devise a different strategy, not only based on what you are requesting, or – but just based on who they are?

CHAMBERS: Yeah. Well, I guess one should say generally. Because the different groups would be more responsive depending on the approach. I was talking about Central as compared to Chapel Hill because it is one approach. It helps those who are allocating resources to appreciate that there are funds needed in order to make some improvement for alumni. It helps them to know that they are in a position to give and that what they give can be extremely beneficial to the group. For the business community it – you know, I guess I got this from Vernon Jordan, it helps for them to appreciate that whatever they are giving or the fact that they are giving can be beneficial to their company or to them and that it's not just a one-way street in terms of the benefits. So one does frequently employ different approaches depending on the group.

BOND: And these approaches don't have to be or can – I don't want to say can be contradictory, because that's not quite it. But you can approach the legislators in one way that you wouldn't dream of using with the other group. And I guess it depends on who the groups are, what the groups are, and what the need is.

CHAMBERS: It does. And the other thing that I should point out is that legislatures are changing. The number of blacks in the legislature today is interesting and it forces one to sort of change the approach that one might have or otherwise have had with the legislature, because blacks in the legislature will look at issues in one way that one has to anticipate in the approach that one is making. So we have, I have, used slightly different approaches in going to different constituencies. And I think that it is necessary because their interests are different. And some of those approaches have been modified or have to be modified because the constituency or the nature of the constituencies themselves is changing.

BOND: Yes, as you say the legislature changes, has changed over time. It's gotten more black members. In many ways, more small "d" democratic today than would have been true thirty years ago. So your approach must change to this.