Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Strategy

BOND: Well, you know, it’s a delicate line to walk in leadership, to head an organization with people who formerly were opposed, or at least they were separate, if they weren’t opposed, and to be able to draw from both these groups to get support, which obviously you’ve done. Now, how are you able to do this? To be, on the one hand, a member of the black caucus, the minority caucus, and on the other hand, to rise to a leadership position in this integrated, majority white organization. How do you balance these?

FUTRELL: Well, and I’ve faced that in every position I’ve held. I remember when I ran for the presidency of NEA -- first I ran for secretary or treasurer, and they didn’t want to elect me because they didn’t think that I could do the job. They didn’t think that I would be fair, I would only side with the minorities, and all kinds of things, and I said, "Well -- " And one of the things I decided to do is stick to the issues, because what they’re trying to do is divert you from the issues and make you come down and make you deal with these issues over here. And what I said is, "Those of you who know me, know that I will be fair and that I will work with all the people. Because this organization represents all the people and whoever is president, or whoever is secretary, represents all the people." And to show them that I was sincere, when I was elected president of the VEA and the NEA, I brought people together who were violently opposed to me, as well as people who were violently supportive of me. And I brought them together and we would sit and work on different projects, and I remember having people say, "I never thought I would be involved in the organization again. I just assumed that when you were elected, that you were only going to support the people who supported you, or you were only going to support, nominate black people." And I said, "No. In this organization, I want the views of all the members to be heard."

And so I would appoint them to the committees and task forces. When we would go on delegations, I would make sure that they were a part of those delegations. I would also take the time to sit down and talk. You know, sometimes we’d get so immature we refused to speak to people. You know, "I’m so angry because she didn’t support me when -- " Well, you have the right not to support me. You have the right to support whomever you want. You have the -- I may disagree with your beliefs, but that doesn’t stop me from being courteous and being professional with you. And I remember the second time I ran for president of NEA, a lot of people came up to me and said, "We’re going to support you, because you did include us, you did not exclude. You brought people together." And that was basically how I did it.

BOND: Let me ask you about different leadership strategies or styles you may employ depending on the group you’re dealing with. For example, you’re active in both the minority caucus of the VEA, and the VEA. Now, are you different when dealing with these two groups? Do you have a different style?

FUTRELL: I don’t think so. When I’m dealing with the minority caucus, or the black caucus in the NEA or the VEA or whatever, I tend to say to them, "These are the issues." Now, what I will do is give them maybe more detailed information and make sure they have all the information they need about the strategy and why we’re doing what we’re doing. And then, when I go on the floor, I’m going to provide that same information but probably not in as much detail, because I’m not going to have the opportunity to give it in as much detail. My advocacy for issues related to blacks or minorities hasn’t changed over the last thirty-some years. And people who know me know that that’s where I’m going to speak. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree. I think that anyone who is a leader, there are opportunities where you sit down and you can talk to somebody and you can be more candid, more private. Do I do that? The answer is yes. The answer is absolutely, yes. And there are certain people within the black caucus at the VEA level, at the national level, with whom I sit down and have these conversations and make sure they have the detailed information, etc. But when I get on the floor, it might not be as detailed but it’s basically the same kind of information.

Now, why do I do that? Because, let’s face the reality. It doesn’t matter what size group you’re dealing with, that information is going to get out, and the last thing you need to do is to get up on the floor and be caught in a lie. Or be caught that you distorted or you’re not sharing the whole truth. And so you have to be very careful about that. But whoever the audience is with whom I’m dealing, they know that I’m going to deal with the issues related to equity, etc. So they know that that’s there.

BOND: What about style as opposed to substance?


BOND: If I’m speaking to an all-black audience, I’m going to speak in one way.


BOND: And if I’m speaking to an integrated audience, or an audience that’s overwhelmingly white, I’m going to speak it another way. And I don’t think it’s even conscious as much as I look out and see the faces and I react in a different way.

FUTRELL: Well, let me put it like this, and I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but when I’m speaking to a predominately black audience, I’m going to probably let my hair down and be more "Mary, the black person," you know --

BOND: Yes. Yes.

FUTRELL: And it’s the style I use or the tone, but the message is not different.

BOND: Right.

FUTRELL: Okay? And when I’m speaking over here, I’m maybe going to use a different style, etc. But in every instance it’s going to be very professional, very -- it’s going to be basically the same message. And again, I say that because the message gets out.

BOND: The substance is the same --

FUTRELL: Right. The style --

BOND: -- but the style and the presentation may be different?

FUTRELL: Right. Yeah.

BOND: Back to something we had talked about --

FUTRELL: And let me say this. And when I’m dealing with the caucus, all the strategy doesn’t take place in a formal meeting. See, a lot of the strategizing is going to take place when we’re in a very informal environment where we kick back, you know? We’ve got our shoes off and, you know, we’re eating or we’re whatever, and it sounds like a general conversation but it’s probably not a general conversation. It’s a conversation where we’re talking about the issues. And so I’m going to be much more laid back, much more candid, much more whatever than I would be able, to probably to be out there on the floor.