Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Vision, Philosophy, and Style

BOND: Let me ask you what you see as the difference between vision, philosophy, and style. How do these interact for you — vision, philosophy, style?

THOMAS: Wow. How would you define vision?

BOND: How would you define vision?

THOMAS: You know, I guess for me — I’m not that creative. I had a — say, let’s just take the EEOC when I was leaving there. I had the sense that an organization should — no matter where it was going, some people might have different policies — but the machinery of it should work, that processes should work. That you get in your car and you might decide that you want to drive over to northwest, but you wanted to work to get to northwest. I might decide I want to go to northeast. Now, we may go different directions, but in both cases, our expectation is that machinery of our vehicle works. That’s what I thought about EEOC. First of all, let’s just make it work. And so my view was to have an organization that worked and that the people who were integral to it — it was not me, I was a political appointee — the people who were integral were the career people. So wherever I was, whatever I was doing, the career people have to buy into it. It was their organization. It was their careers there. Some of them had grown up there. So if there was a vision, it was more that, and also to make sure — we had tens of thousands of cases coming through it. How do we process these? Now, there’s going to be a tiny fraction that we disagree about, but the overwhelming bulk of it we all agree on, that these people need to have their rights vindicated. And, of course, there’re glitches along the way, but if there was a vision, it was to have the machinery work, to have it work consistent with the statute, and to have the people who were there as career people to be the major players in that.

BOND: Okay. And then philosophy.

THOMAS: You know, I don’t know if I had a management philosophy other than that a job worth doing is worth doing well and that everyone should be treated fairly. I was not one of these people — I’m not real tolerant of people who don’t do their work. I’m not going to tell you — I’m not going to sit here and tell you that. I’m not tolerant of me not doing my work, and my view is more like my grandfather’s. You are here to do a job and you’ll do it. If you’re not going to do it, you’re not going to be here. On the other hand, if you do your job and do it well, I am your best friend, so my best managers always had incomes that exceeded mine and I always — I would send them off to Harvard to enhance their careers in different ways.

I also had these wonderful programs. When you run a fairly decent-sized organization, you have some latitude. You put, say, women or minorities in programs that would enhance their careers. And these weren’t like giving preferences. It was getting that pool ready, expanding it to move into upper management, whether it was at EEOC or other agencies, and the good news about that is that in the long run, it actually worked, that they went off and they did other things and people were taking them away from us. I felt that you had to — my philosophy was I treated people the way I wanted to be treated and I treated the organization in a way that I would want a manager to treat an organization of mine if I had one.

BOND: And what about style?

THOMAS: My style is pretty much low key. I’m a meat and potatoes guy. I don’t mean that dietary-wise. I’d be bloated if I did that, but the — I just — I’m straightforward. You know, some people tend to be flamboyant. I’m not that kind of person and I don’t pretend to be that kind of person. What you see is what you get. I’m going to tell you exactly what I think. I’m not going to play games with you. And I do believe that it is critical as a manager, for credibility, for the organization, for yourself, to level with people. That if you want to be positive, if you tell them in a measured way exactly what you think in a positive way. If you have to bring unpleasant news, there is a decent way to do it without destroying another human being.

The other thing that — you know, we had a very — we had the most diverse, population-wise, organization probably in the government. So one of the things that you have to be clear about is that we start on a very human level. We are dealing with human beings. Everybody’s a human being here. I don’t pigeonhole people. You don’t treat blacks a certain way, Hispanics another way, mixed race another way, Native Americans another way, people who’re disabled, people with disabilities another way. You don’t do that. A human being is a human being is a human being and what I found, yes, people have particular problems because of certain attributes, but that doesn’t identify them. They are human beings and I’ve found that that worked far better than putting people in different pigeonholes and then treating them accordingly.