Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

How Leaders Are Made

BOND: Let me ask you a question about how leaders are made. Most people talk about it in three ways -- great people cause great events. Movements make leaders. Or the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Which of these fits you?


RASPBERRY: Oh, boy. Probably all those things are working and I would guess that the last one --


BOND: Unpredictable events, leaders appropriate to the times.


RASPBERRY: Leaders appropriate to the times. There're those who really do believe, and very often so do I, that the times create the leaders that the times demand. And there's plenty of historic evidence for that, but I have to say that there're also times it seems to me that demand a kind of leadership that in fact does not present itself. There are people -- and this is why it's difficult when you're talking about it -- there're people, I think, who are destined for leadership almost from infancy. And such people will lead wherever they find themselves and in whatever circumstances they'll be, whether they're in the military or in the university or in the cotton fields, they will lead. There're other people who don't consider themselves as at all destined for leadership but who become increasingly uncomfortable with a wrong and it's like a pebble in the shoe, and at some point, they have to take the damn shoe off and get rid of the pebble. And they do this not thinking that they're leaders but they discover when they talk about this irritant that they aren't only the ones who've experienced it and want to be rid of it. And they start something that other people will follow and they're leaders almost accidentally. Sometimes leaders are those who -- I mean, if you can imagine somebody showing up at the scene of an accident or a natural disaster and sort of setting things in motion --


BOND: Taking control.


RASPBERRY: Taking control. There're people who show up at the scenes of political disasters or racial disasters or civic disasters and take control not because they want to get blood on their hands or risk cuts and injury, but because from their point of view it's so clear that something has to be done and who else is going to do it? So they say, "Come on, let's do it."


BOND: Is there something about your times that enabled you to have the influence that you had as a Post columnist, leaving aside race, that could not have happened in an earlier period? I don't mean that the Post opened up and hired more and more black writers but, say, a hundred years earlier could you have occupied this same position?


RASPBERRY: Those are the things that send you to sleep frustrated and talking to yourself because you can never know whether to be born thirty years sooner is to change drastically your life trajectory or to be born thirty years later. I mean, you can imagine my being, what, a thirty-five or forty-year-old journalist at a major city newspaper in 2006. What would I be doing? What would be I doing if I were twenty or twenty-five and a fledgling journalist now at the Post or The New York Times or some place and what would I aspire to? What opportunities would be available to me? I think you just can't know.


BOND: No. Probably an unfair question.


RASPBERRY: I mean, I think it's impossible to avoid thinking about -- you know, boy, what if I'd had the break my kids have or what if my kids had had the harsh lessons that I had. You know, we don't know. We have to deal with the times we're given.


BOND: Well, for you, is your ability as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or is it in your ability to articulate an agenda that's personal and yours, or are these the same thing?


RASPBERRY: They are not the same thing -- well, if I hear you correctly. The one sounds like the president of the United States. The other sounds like the press secretary. The president at least in ideal circumstances ought to have a bit of the vision thing. He ought to be able to see and communicate some vision, some overarching philosophy, and it's very helpful if you have a press secretary who can articulate that for journalists who come yapping around. But these are very different skill sets. There are people who are excellent at taking your ideas, teasing out what your ideas are and then making them articulate. But I wouldn't call such people leaders. They may often be indispensable to leaders, but they're not leadership.


The quality of leadership I think that's terribly important is the ability to step back a little bit from the fray and see a larger picture, see whatever the activity or the problem is in a larger context and try to deal with it in terms of that context with some outcome in mind. And probably the outcome ought to be something that the leader could articulate and share because if a leader has a goal that is not the goal of the people he's asking to follow him, that's a species of deception and I don't like it much.