Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Style

BOND: Do you have a leadership style that adapts to controversy? Or in controversy, in church, in public life, does the same leadership style apply?

FLAKE: I think that the leadership style in both is the same. And in controversy, I think that what I generally try to do is find the common ground. But as you know, you're dealing with human personalities. And that becomes an impossibility in every instance. A classic case is when you're talking about growth and change as it occurred in the church over the last twenty-six years. Obviously, if you inherit a congregation of about a thousand people that is in a growth mode, you have people who have already established their turf, already established their positions. So when you come in and start talking about, for instance, we're not going to have fifty-some clubs that have fifty-some checking accounts. And we're going to have everybody put their money in a central account. You're talking about really the golden calf. You are now about to knock off a sense of power that people have. Because, as you know, in churches, power resides in being able to control that money, even though it is the church's money, but most of the groups in the churches don't understand that. I ran into serious problems in the first couple of years. Because, one, the church was growing fast. And everybody in churches don't want it to grow. Because then you begin to disseminate power. You don't have the same people heading up everything. And they're used to that. You change the models in terms of creating systems for accountability and bringing in accountants and CPAs -- they're not used to that. And that was not a model that the leadership of the church even embraced because they said it was too costly. So when we began that, there were just three people primarily who really had vehement reactions to that. And I think it was about control. Eventually, I think I tolerated it for a long time, because I felt that over time it would take care of itself. And what I learned in that experience is that when you have problems, you have to confront them. You can't just keep letting them roll. You've got to deal with that. And I am one -- one thing about my leadership style that I consider a weakness is I hate confrontation. I will do anything to avoid confrontation. But reality is that you have to deal with it.

BOND: How do you overcome this weakness that you perceive in yourself?

FLAKE: Well, I become more confrontational in terms of issues. I realize now that you got -- you have to take a position and you have to -- if that is your position, you have to go on and be confrontational in a loving way. And I try to do it in such ways. As I teach my staff, you can have confrontation, but you don't have to leave blood on the floor. You ought to be able when the confrontation is finished to leave people standing and have a sense of dignity about themselves. And that's basically my approach. In this case, even that did not work. And so I wound up in a court case. And I mean, the court case basically, emanated from within the church. And it evolved by the time I had gotten into Congress. So I wound up on a federal trial with accusations that the very people, these very three people, wound up testifying on my behalf actually about the changes that had occurred. And I was shocked because the accusations they had made was I was stealing money and all, when, in fact, what we did was build systems of accountability. On the witness stand, they said, "No. He didn't have access to cash. We wrote the checks. We did this and that and the other. But he changed everything." And the bottom line was that was the primary issue.

And it really happened when that same group of three -- when we had built the school, and then all these vacant stores were across the street. And I had a vision that we ought to buy them. And these were members of the trustee and steward boards who said, "We're not in the real estate business. We have a church we paid for. We have a school, a $4 million school we just built. But we're not in the real estate business." So I stood in the congregation one Sunday and said, "You know, we can buy these stores, the fifteen stores across the street, and get them for $250,000." After $50,000 in thirty days -- my wife organized women in the church to raise the $50,000. And those three guys said I disrespected them. And that I would never regret it. And that's how we really wound up in that court case.

I guess the other area of controversy is once I got in Congress, the fact that I really tried to work with both sides of the aisle. One thing you don't do generally as a Democrat is work with Republicans. But I found people like Tom Ridge, who was in Erie and I was in Jamaica, we decided that the problems of his city were like the problems of my city. And that we needed to work together to do that legislation which was a community renewals act. And we did it. We pushed it through. And I pushed it through with a great deal of Democratic opposition. Well, of course, that gave me a reputation as being somewhat of a maverick, which did not trouble me because in the final analysis, when you look at what has happened with that legislation and the amount of dollars that have gotten into communities, that came just before the Empowerment Act, it would not have happened. And so, it becomes -- sometimes you stand on your principle and you try to face people. And everybody who knows me will tell you, even if they disagree with me, when they see me the next time, I'm coming up, I'm going to give them a hug. Because I don't carry the burden of whatever the issues were. The next time -- each new issue stands on its own. That's part of my style.