Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Early Development

BOND: Now, you had these leadership experiences in grade school, high school, now in college. Did you ever think, say, "I'm a leader"?

LEFTWICH: Well, yeah by the time I got to college I did.

BOND: And you expected that you would take leadership positions?

LEFTWICH: That's right. In the first week of the first semester that I was on campus, I ran to become the freshman representative to student government and I won.

BOND: Within a week.

LEFTWICH: Within a week. It was — it's funny how certain events presage a series of other events that you could never had anticipated absent that one event. The defining moment, I think they call it, so that being elected as a freshman, brand new on campus to a very important position meant that I was then expected to step up to the plate with the other leaders who are on campus.

BOND: So the election of you to this relatively small leadership position, the lowest on the rank of student governments, creates opportunities for you to take other leadership positions.

LEFTWICH: That's right.

BOND: It opens the door.

LEFTWICH: That's right. There are a lot of things like that, and I think that when I talk with young people I try to encourage them to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along that you think you can make something of, you can contribute to, that will broaden your horizons because you never know where that's going to be. You never know when the interface between you and some new situation is going to result in the opening of a whole — of other vistas that you could — I think I ran for office because I was a political scientist student, and this was the first election on campus and I'd been hanging out with this politician mother all those years and I got homesick. So I —

BOND: But you obviously had to have the kind of personality where enough people knew you in this class of strangers for them to have elected you.

LEFTWICH: Yeah, I think that's true, although it's helped by the fact that I was the only one from Buffalo, New York, and nobody knew where Buffalo, New York was. People used to come up to me and say, "I have this cousin who is from New York." I'd say, "Oh, where?" "Brooklyn." I'd say, "You're right, okay."

Now, I think that I really was — I'm fundamentally a very private person. When I say that to people they laugh and roll all around the floor. But there are real oases of insularity that I crave and as I have grown older have learned to make for myself because I tend to be very reflective. I write a lot. I mean, you can't write when you're running around talking to people all the time. And I always wrote.

So — but there's another side of me that wants to know what's going on, and — which is a friendly side. I'm not mean-spirited. I think that sort of living in a dormitory, which I had never done, living in a dormitory was really interesting. But living in a dormitory and feeling — I think I felt responsible for people for no good reason. I mean, it's just my personality. I didn't have to take care of — I had to take care of my brother and my sisters, but that was not — you know, there are some people who are caretakers. I wasn't a caretaker child. I was taken care of. But I extended myself and I still do in situations where everybody is strange or where people are strange because I am really at ease in the world having traveled so much. And I know that a lot of people are not. And that helps in a situation where everybody — a lot of kids have never been away from home before. And there were a lot of opportunities to be nice to people because that was what I thought I should do. You know, it was fun. And, yeah —

So I was elected. Then I was — that continued because once you are in the student government you were there. I finally became president of it in my senior year. But I was also on the newspaper, which gave me a platform and a voice.

BOND: Sure.

LEFTWICH: And I played — I did music. People who did music sort of gravitated toward one another in that small environment. It was like a family.