Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Philosophy

BOND: Now, think, if you will, about yourself. Are you a leader because your ability to persuade people to follow your vision, or because you're able to articulate an agenda for others to follow? Why are you a leader?

HEIGHT: See, I think that you need all three. I think that you need to be able -- if you have a vision and you can't share it, and if no one shares your vision, who are you leading? So that I think you have to have that capacity and the willingness to try it -- to learn it if you don't have it. You can't just go to the back of the room and say, "Well, I'll let this happen."

But I also think that you -- that a role of leadership is to help people clarify their agenda. I often think of Mahatma Gandhi, who said, "The people -- " When they were trying to restrain him, he said, "The people here want freedom, and I have to follow them because I am their leader." In other words, he saw what the need was, but he also helped to frame that agenda. And I don't think you can hope for something to happen without framing the agenda. You have to effect the agenda, but you help not your agenda, but you have to help your agenda be related to the overall social need.

BOND: Now, have there been times in your life where you felt a challenge to your philosophy, that you felt that your vision --

HEIGHT: All through my life. Yeah, all through my life.

BOND: Can you tell us a time?

HEIGHT: Well, I mean, you know -- I even think sitting in this building, of the times that people said to me -- you know, there were times when I almost gave up, because so many people said, "We don't need something like this." And other people who were antagonistic -- this one white man said to me, "Ms. Height, why do you need to be on Pennsylvania Avenue for the National Congress of Negro Women? You could have a nice office in a side street." Well, then I knew what his vision was of me and of my people, and his view of me and my people. And so you have it from those who are real opponents, and even those who are close in.

I think the most important challenge is always to test it back and say, "Is this something I want? Is this just about me? Or is this really for the good? How much is this related to a social goal and not just so I can be the head of whatever it is and sit on that street?" You see?

BOND: Yeah.

HEIGHT: So you have to go back and test it that way.

But I have to say, often those who challenge you are, like President Kennedy told the civil rights team, he said, "Bull Connor will prove to be your best friend because he had to make clear what -- he brought out that which is subtly hidden all around him." Well, I think sometimes those who challenge you are helpful because they make you have to test to what extent is this vision related to something that is real. "Is this thing that I'm trying to do --?" And it also makes you have to say to yourself that "I have to try a new behavior. I have to come another way. I have to see who else is ready to work with this." It makes you -- it, in a sense, it really strengthens leadership if you can survive it.