Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Philosophy

BOND: From time to time, I’ve heard you say that one aspect of your leadership is being open to different opinions and so on. Do you think you have a leadership philosophy, and if you do, what is your philosophy of leadership?

FUTRELL: Well, I think that my philosophy is basically, if you’re going to lead, you have to get out front and be willing to take risks. You have to be willing to listen. You have to be willing to do whatever you need to do to achieve the goals that you’ve set. You have to be willing to work with all kinds of people. And you have to be, basically, determined. I’m a firm believer that it doesn’t have to be my idea all the time when there's one that's out there. If you’ve got a better idea, okay, let’s put it out there and let’s try to make it work. How do I motivate other people to work to make this idea work? And to me, that’s leadership. And I find so many times, people have a vision but they don’t know how to implement it. Or they’re able to mobilize people but they can’t articulate what the vision is. It doesn’t do you any good to have a vision if you can’t get people to believe in you and follow you. And so, when I think of leadership, I think of people who have a vision, they’re able to articulate it, and they’re able to get people to work and they’re willing to work and put forth whatever’s necessary to make it happen.

BOND: Now you have those attributes and you’ve talked earlier about how others, teachers, parents, community, helped to reinforce those attitudes in you. But why doesn’t everyone have these attributes? Why, why does Mary, little Mary, have these and not these others?

FUTRELL: Because I think -- I think we are different people. I think that a lot of times, people have these attributes and they don’t recognize them. A lot of times, maybe they haven’t been given the opportunity to come forward. I think that leaders come from many different perspectives. I don’t think that one person necessarily is going to do everything. If it’s only Mary, then it’s not going to work. The other people have to believe as well and persuade them to come along. I’ve also -- I'm also a firm believer that you’re going to get the job done if you include other people and if you listen to them and involve them rather than tell them what they have to do.

BOND: Now it’s obvious from the high school leadership positions you achieved, that you were a leader then. But did you ever begin to say to yourself, or maybe you don’t, "I am a leader"?

FUTRELL: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so.

BOND: But obviously others thought of you in that way or they wouldn’t have chosen you for these positions, so when did you ever begin to think of yourself as a leader?

FUTRELL: You know, a lot of things that happened to me, Julian. Chappie Brown used to say, "Don’t knock on the door of opportunity, then when it opens say, ‘Wait a minute, let me get my bag'." Because he would say, "When you bend down to get it, somebody else is going to walk through." I think a lot of what has happened to me has been I’ve been in the right place at the right time.

BOND: Surely, but you had to be in that right place.

FUTRELL: Well, you know, and this is kind of awkward for me, I have to say, because I view you as a leader. I knew about Julian Bond before I met Julian Bond.

BOND: That’s kind of you to say, but this is about you. This is about you.

FUTRELL: Oh, I know, I know. But I’m trying to make a point. The point that I’m trying to make is, when I saw people like you and Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King -- you have to remember that I’m looking at TV…and I’m listening to the radio and I’m hearing -- I go to Virginia State College and Martin Luther King comes to my campus to speak. Well, these are the kinds of experiences that gives me the courage and gives me the belief and says to me, "You can do that."

BOND: But somebody else sees Martin Luther King speak and they say, "Hey, I could never do that. I can’t talk like that."


BOND: "I can’t speak like that."

FUTRELL: Well, believe it or not, Julian, I couldn’t either. When I first --

BOND: But somehow or another, you saw him and you said, something in you said, "I can do that."

FUTRELL: Well, because I’m thinking, "Here’s somebody who’s, you know, from my neighborhood." You know, if you understand what I’m saying. And that person could do it and they’re standing up, maybe I could do it. And so you don’t really go and say, "I’m the leader." But I think what happens is as you work with the groups, as you work with people, you sort of emerge. Have there been opportunities when I wanted to be the leader and I wasn’t selected? Yeah. Have there been opportunities when I was selected to be the leader, and I wasn’t sure I could do the job? Yeah. But what you try to do is make sure that if you’re out there that you have people who can help you, especially address those weaknesses and things that you have. When I became the president of the VEA, I had not planned to be the president of the VEA. And a lot of the blacks came and they said, "We’ve been merged now for, I think it was like ten years or so," and we go back to this gender issue you asked me about. "We think it’s time for VEA to have a black president." And so my name was one of the ones they put forth and they also put forth a man’s name. What I was told was, "You should step aside. ‘Cause you have not paid your dues and you’re a woman and a black man should do it first." Well, I must confess and say, that that really irritated me. Because I remember asking the question, "How long do I have to be around to pay my dues?" Because dues didn’t mean paying your money.

BOND: I know.

FUTRELL: And I said, "Well, when did -- what does being a woman have to do with it?" And so I decided to run. And I was surprised when I got elected, they called me at my school and told me, and I thought they were playing a joke on me, so I hung up the telephone and went back to my class. And they called again and I refused to go to the telephone because I just was sure that I didn’t win. So they told my principal to come and get me to tell me that I had won.

When I ran for president of NEA, I hadn’t planned to be the president. Traditionally, it’s the vice-president who runs and for whatever reason the vice-president decided not to. It was the time of the Nation at Risk report. It was the time of all the -- the beginning of the national debate around education. And folks came and they said, "Look, we don’t have time to educate somebody to step in and to help the NEA deal with these issues. We need somebody who knows the organization and who can hit the ground running." And so they asked me to be the president and I said, "Okay, I’m not sure that, you know, that this is what I want to do or what I plan to do." And that’s the way it happened.

Being the dean of the school of education – I did not plan to be the dean of the school of education. When I stepped down as president of NEA, I went back to school to get my degree to figure out what are you going to do with the rest of your life? That was my strategy. And five years later, I’m the dean. But I hadn’t planned to do that. So, when you say, "Are you a leader?” sometimes you say yes, because of the experiences you’ve had, but other times, other people say yes, and then the question becomes, "Do you want to honor what those people are asking you to do and try to do it?"

BOND: You know, in some ways this is --

FUTRELL: Am I making any sense?

BOND: Yes, you're making perfect sense. In some ways this is kind of a chicken/egg situation. The head of the VEA is a leader because that person is head of the VEA. But you don’t get to be head of the VEA, unless you’re a leader.

FUTRELL: Right. Right. And you’ve got a whole lot of leaders there.

BOND: Yes, indeed. You do. Important leaders, people who’ve, you know, served in education for a long, long time.