Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Development

BOND: Let's talk for a minute about how leadership is made. People tend to think of them being made in three separate ways: great people cause great events; movements throw up leaders, make movements happen; and the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Which of these, if any, do you fit? Or do you fit more than one?

FLAKE: I think all three. I think great leaders are those who are able to respond by creating movements and movements are not always merely -- I think the context of the African-American experience is all too often movements for us have been towards protests, reactions. My sense of that is greatness is not defined merely by reaction. It is defined by being proactive in ways that bring about change, and understanding that the movement may bring about an upheaval that makes change more possible. So, there are times I want to be in movement. There are times I want to be in the process of making the thing happen. Ultimately, the goal becomes to give new definition, new meaning, to the way people think about things, especially those things they think are detrimental to their life. And give them a sense that although it appears to be detrimental now, it does not have to be fatal. And that you have to look within yourself to find the strength to be able to somehow overcome that. And I think people like the feeling that there is someone who is willing to say to them that these are the conditions and then ask the question, "What are you going to do about them? Are you going to move beyond blame and alibis and excuses? Or are you going to merely continue to languish in the rhetoric of change?" And that's where I don't -- I can't languish that long. Because I realize that ultimately change is coming, I have to take some responsibility for leadership.

BOND: But leadership is such a broad category that there are leaders who do want to languish there, and who are celebrated and applauded and worshiped. In fact, how do you -- you've already distinguished yourself in these categories. Is it a failing that you have these leadership types -- we have these leadership types who don't say, "Here's what we can do to get past this," but who instead say, "Here's where we are"? And merely describe the condition.

FLAKE: It is somewhat of a failing. It is somewhat of a failing because if you only concentrate on the problem, then the problem ultimately defines you as opposed to you defining the problem. My context is to give definition, to give reality to the fact that the problem exists, but then to give definition to how to solve the problem and if necessary to provide the leadership that brings about a solution that is one that people can live with. And for me, it's never about -- I don't worry about celebration. I mean, you honor me by having me here. But the bottom line is understanding that what I do through my leadership model is an actual getting-in, rolled-up-the-sleeves, making-it-happen. That is not celebrated as much as if I use the same rhetorical skills, the same ability to articulate, that can bring 6,000 people into worship on a Sunday morning. I could just as easily call press conferences and do the same thing and be revered as being one of the great voices. But what good is having a great voice if you have no product? And my goal is to ultimately build a product and eventually I get the recognition. And that's -- that's okay. But that's not the goal.