Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Style

BOND: Now, what you’re describing is a consultative process where the people who are against are talked to and even though they have different arguments, you manage to say, "Well, I’m going to meet this argument this way, I’m going to meet this argument this way." Is that a -- how did you develop this style? Does that go back to early leadership positions? High school? Student government? How did this come about?

FUTRELL: Well, I think it came about because as I worked with people, again -- I may disagree with you, but I can disagree with you without being disagreeable. I need to respect you, I need to listen to you, and even though we disagree on the issue, we maybe can agree on how to respond to the basic concepts contained there. The concept there was how do we make sure that there is accountability? And how do we make sure that whatever we’re doing is fair? The people weren’t opposed to that. And one of the things that I said to the teachers, Julian, "We give tests all the time." As a teacher I test maybe once every week. So how can I say I’m opposed to testing?

But what I want to make sure that I do is I’m testing that on which I have taught and which the kids know. So I tried to approach it from that perspective and not disrespect them because they don’t agree with me or because we, maybe at this point in time, have not decided how to move forward. But let’s sit down and try to work it out. Let’s sit down and try to figure out what it is we should do. The standards board is the perfect example. The minorities were very concerned, the blacks – and I say minorities because we have Hispanics and blacks and Asians – they were very concerned about what would be the impact of the national certification process on minority teachers. And what do we do about rural areas and the urban areas where we have high concentration? I said, "Well, first of all, we -- this is a good idea, we’ve supported it at the state level for twenty years. Now we’re simply saying let’s look at it and let’s deal with it at the national level. Let’s make sure the resources are there. So NEA must make a commitment to the states and to the locals to provide support, resources, training, information, whatever we need to do." And then what I said, "I think" – and we’re seeing this happen now – "teachers who pass ought to be able to earn some more money. They ought to be able to play a different role. They ought to be able to do some different kinds of things, but remain part of the classroom, part of the profession." And so those kinds of things were also persuasive.

BOND: Now there must have been, or was there ever an occasion where, in order to get something, you had to give something in any of these leadership roles?

FUTRELL: Yeah. I gave something on the national board when I promised the higher ed folks that they wouldn’t have to be assessed. And interestingly, now that issue has come up again and some of them are asking, "Why can’t we go through this process?" And they’re beginning to ask, "Well, we’re going to teach people how to become nationally certified, should we not demonstrate we can be nationally certified?" You know, you -- the whole process is give and take.

BOND: Yeah.

FUTRELL: The whole process is give and take. You can’t expect to win everything. The other thing that I learned in all of this – because you don’t win all the time – rise above. You know, don’t take it personally because somebody maybe didn’t want to do what you want to do. And if you put five items out there, most people are not going to win five. But if you win three, and which ones do you really want to win? So which ones are you willing to give up or to lose, and which ones are you willing -- are you going to fight to the death to win? And so, you go out there and as you deal with these people, you’re dealing with them from a point of view of, "Yeah, I may not have won that one, but we’re still going to work together and I’m going to try to get your support on this one over here and try to be persuasive." And I’m going to be very honest, I never went on the floor without having a strategy.

BOND: But don’t you have to learn this?


BOND: I mean, you don’t automatically approach things, or most people don’t automatically approach things by saying, "Well, I can’t win everything, I’m going to -- " How do you learn this?

FUTRELL: You learn through experience. You learn through trial and error. You learn through, I don’t want to say winning and losing, but that’s basically the way you win.

BOND: Yes.

FUTRELL: The way it happens and, for example, even in the local association, or even in the state association, or even now when I’m working at the dean’s level -- as the dean, I don’t expect to win every battle, but what are the key things and have I done my best? To offer the best arguments as to why we should do a certain thing? And have I talked to the key people, and have I, do I know where the people are who are opposing, and why they oppose? Do I know where the people are who are supporting and why they’re supporting? Where are the resources to do all this? So it’s not just a matter of getting up and giving a magnanimous speech and saying these are things I want to do. What’s the strategy for winning?

Now, winning also might mean, "I’ve prepared this document, this is my proposal, am I willing to negotiate certain parts of it, am I willing to compromise on certain parts?" Yes, as long as the basic idea is still there. And where you lose a lot of times is, "I’m not going to change anything. If it’s not exactly as it is -- I’m not going to change it." And that’s where you lose. Or, "I’m not going to listen to you." That’s where you lose. Or you get up and you put someone down. You know, one of the things -- I used to work with a parliamentarian, Hugh Cannon. And Hugh would say, "Mary, whatever you do, be fair, listen, and don’t ever think that you’re so high above them that what they say is not worth listening to." And the first couple of times, because sometimes, you know, somebody says something, you kind of want to smirk.

BOND: Yes.

FUTRELL: You know you want to. He said, "Because people are watching you." And he said, "As long as you’re fair, and they know you’re trying to get others involved and you’re trying to listen, they’ll usually go along with you. They may not be quite sure of what it is that’s being proposed, but they will trust you and trust whatever you’re trying to do." And I found that that worked. I have found that when people get up and if "It’s not my way," they get mad. Then, what happens is, for the next hour or two, you’re going to lose everything.

BOND: Right.

FUTRELL: But if people say, "Okay, she didn’t get all she wanted." Or, "Maybe she didn’t win on this one, but you know there’s some other things coming up." You know, and sometimes, out of sympathy, they’ll give you the other things. You know, you’ve got to understand that. You’ve got to understand you’re not the only player. And as Jim Harris, the other black president of NEA said one time, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. The delegates giveth, the delegates taketh away." You’re there by virtue of the fact that they put you there, and just because you’re there doesn’t mean that they have to buy everything that you say. Now I sound like "Preacher Mary."

BOND: No, that's okay.