Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Foundational Experiences

BOND: Now, from the seventh grade forward to this instance of overcoming this shyness, are you saying that the leadership abilities you had demonstrated in the sixth grade didn't follow you along in this same period too? What about college and law school?

HOOKS: It followed me along, but not in speaking before large groups.

BOND: Okay.

HOOKS: I was still active in my -- you know, in eighth grade we had three divisions and I was still very active there. In high school I was the treasurer of my whole senior class. But I think if I had been in my regular class I might have been president.

BOND: Okay.

HOOKS: I was editor of the year book and I was in all of the activities -- High Y club and the Safety Club and this, that and the other -- but more or less at a subordinate level. I worked better through groups. You know, I worked better in getting my -- and perhaps it has followed me through all of my career, because when I was with Dr. King at the SCLC, I never ever saw any leadership role. He called on me to do things that perhaps others didn't want to be bothered with. When we had the annual meeting, the books would be a mess. And he would ask me to get with Dora McDonald and one of two others and try to -- and so the whole convention I'd be in the back room trying to put figures together -- and I was pretty good with them and -- so we could make our presentation to the press. That's why I eventually ended up as financial secretary of SCLC. Others would do the, you know, speech-making and all of that. So in a sense, throughout my future life for many years, my leadership role was secondary and subordinate. I dealt with a lot of older men in fraternal organizations. I'd end up being the secretary and advisor while they had the top role. It never bothered me to do that. That's why I've been disturbed by some young people who have to either be the boss or they can't do anything. I learned how to get along and how to have great influence without being the last word. Now in my professional life, I guess I became sort of spoiled because I became a judge, which means you're on your own. When I was on the Federal Communications Commission, though I was on the collegial body of seven, you're independent. You don't have to kowtow. When I went to NAACP, I was Executive Director and CEO. And I've been Grand Master of Masons in my faith, and head of many other organizations. But my training was, "Learn how to get along with people and work with people." And even today some people don't think I can do that. They think because I was at the top, that I can't work in a subordinate role.

BOND: But this ability to get along with other people, do you think or can you recall instances in high school or even younger where this began to manifest yourself in your personality? This ability to get others to work with you and you to play either subordinate or primary roles. When did this happen?

HOOKS: I think it started as early as I can remember because at the time I was in school, I was always with a whole group of strong personalities. Even little kids, you know. And I sort of learned how to listen to what they were saying and you know, and come up with a position in between. At the NAACP, for the most part, I've ordered a great deal of conflict by listening to what people had to say and if they had any merit, trying to find it and not just summarily dismissing them. You know what I'm saying? And wherever I've done it, I've made a tremendous mistake. The two or three instances in my life where I've been harsh with people, it came back to haunt me. You know, that's not my -- confrontational style is not mine, and yet, I'm as persistent in what I want as anybody you could ever see. But I just approach it perhaps from a different angle. And I think that started in my early childhood.