Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leading by Example at EEOC

BOND: When you get to the EEOC, you’re leading an agency of three thousand people and clearly, just by nature of the job, you’re a leader. Did you think of yourself in that way there? I know you’re a modest guy, but —

THOMAS: No, realistic.

BOND: Didn’t you think that I’m in charge of this? I run this?

THOMAS: Actually, it started at the Department of Education in 1981, about this time in 1981 and all of a sudden you show up, you’re in your — I was, what, thirty-two years old? And there’re about eight or nine hundred people in this organization. There’s some contentiousness and I said, "Oh, my goodness, what am I going to do now?" So you’re sort of selected and you’re put in charge and, again, it is sink or swim. And then I go to EEOC within a year, less than a year, and it’s really — it’s spread-out organization with any number of problems and now you must lead and what you borrow from are the people that you respect. I mean, I respected and admired the way Senator Way, Senator [John] Danforth did things. So I didn’t have these sort of litmus tests about people. I didn’t put people in boxes. You allow people to do their jobs, and there’re some people that didn’t perform and you dealt with them as individuals, but you didn’t put people in boxes. So, yes, that was a point when you were thrust into a leadership position and you are required when you are in these positions to do the job the best you can and you must become a leader.

BOND: It seems to me there’re two steps here. One is you said you’re selected, and you’re selected for some reason because people say, "He can do it, he can do the job." And then you have the job and you have to demonstrate that you can do the job so you weren’t just picked willy nilly, someone said, "Oh, get that guy." I mean, you weren’t just picked willy-nilly. Somebody saw in you some quality of leadership.

THOMAS: Yeah, I don’t know. You know, I’d like to think so but I just don’t know. I’d been around Washington long enough not to be presumptuous enough to think that somebody saw something particular about me.

BOND: But nobody’s going to say, "Give him that job, he’ll mess it up." Nobody’s saying that.

THOMAS: Well, I think it’s — you know, maybe, I don’t know. But once I’m there, then I think you’re obligated to perform. My view is fairly simple about these jobs and that is that you are required to when you’re put in a position to do the job as best you can and a part of leading is leading by example, so if you expect other people to put the hours in, you put the hours in. If you expect other people to be fair to each other, you have to be fair. If you expect other people to be disciplined in decision-making, you have to be disciplined in decision-making.

I had a rule, for example, just a simple rule. One of the hardest things to do in these jobs is to terminate people. You can ask any executive — to bring a person in and terminate people. Over the years, whether I was at Monsanto or at the Department of Education, on the Hill, wherever I was, it always bothered me when someone had to work themselves into a frenzy to terminate a person, to imagine that they’re angry with a person, almost like a pep talk, before a football game or something. I always thought you had to do what you had to do and you could do it in as pleasant a manner as you possibly could, leaving that person some measure of dignity. And that’s a simple thing, but I always thought it was very, very important. But, yes, I was put in these positions and once in those positions, I think you have to learn how to lead or you should just simply leave.